“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"We're Ancestors": Some Thoughts for the Holidays (Part 2, "The Royal Tenenbaums")


This post is the second of two, beginning with this one. My aim in sharing these thoughts now is to bolster up you readers for the family fray that likely awaits you this season. Cheers!

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The Royal Tenenbaums is an acquired taste. I saw it in the theater in high school and I walked out thinking, "Wowthat was so weird." But then I bought the soundtrack, listened to it for several months straight, and then saw it again on DVD. This time, since the music was by then interwoven with my own life amidst my family, the movie was far more affecting. I was able to relate to the characters thanks to a little Mark Mothersbaugh bonding. Try this at home.

Now that I have seen it ten times and given a talk about it, I love it. The extreme attention to detail rewards repeated viewing handsomely. Though the setting and the characters are very particular, the themes are remarkably general. This is about family; and like most of Wes Andersons' movies, it's about broken people finding themselves and becoming more whole through their familiesa highly laudable theme in times like these. That's why I call him the Chestertonian artist of our age, and I'll revisit a few quotes from my last post to align them with The Royal Tenenbaums.

Chesterton wrote,
Of course the family is a good institution because it is uncongenial. It is wholesome precisely because it contains so many divergencies and varieties. It is, as the sentimentalists say, like a little kingdom, and, like most other little kingdoms, is generally in a state of something resembling anarchy.
A little kingdom is the perfect way of describing the Tenenbaum homestead. The house looks like a castle, complete with turrets and even flags. And the master of the house is named Royal. The family members within the walls of this kingdom are just as Chesterton said: in a state of anarchy. The king is no good. He is self-satisfying, unfaithful, rude, unjust, and callous. He abandons his little princes and princess while they are still very young. But twenty-two years later, he finds himself brokefinancially, yes; but the metaphor represents his soul. He sets about repairing the damage he caused his wife and children through the action of the story. When we find each wayward adult-child, we might expect that each is far better off on his or her ownfar away from the broken home. But instead, we see that all three are cripplingly depressed. They are homesick for each other and their mother, and heartsick for repentance from their father.

Once reunited under the same roof, the Tenenbaum family undergoes a rock tumbling like you've never seen"scrappin', yellin', mixin' it up." Being so malformed himself, Royal struggles (often hilariously) to reconnect with each of his children. At first, he tries to reach them through the only means he knowslying and cheating. He tells his wife and children that he only has six weeks to live, and that is why they allow him back into their lives. He lays out his plan to them, saying that he wants to "make up for lost time." He wants to visit his mother's grave with them, talk deeply about personal troubles, take his grandsons out on little adventures. None of this goes smoothly, because life really doesn't. Smoothness is earned through grit and water working hard together over time. Royal even uses this word "grit" to describe Etheline, his wife. It might seem an unlikely word for herso patient and selfless and put-together. But those virtues can only endure if they are tough. They are tried and proved true. She's who I want to be for Christmas.

One detail of Etheline's character that probably goes unnoticed by most has to do with Royal's gravestone. Early in the movie, when Royal takes his children to visit their grandmother's resting place and that of Chas's wife, he spots a very grand tomb which reads, "Veteran of Two Wars / Father of Nine Children / Drowned in the Caspian Sea." He considers it thoughtfully, then says, "Hell of a damn grave. Wish it were mine." Later on, while he's still pretending to be dying, he tells Etheline that he has prepared the epitaph for his own grave: "Proof-read it for me before they carve it on the headstone, ok?" She smiles and agrees. At the very end of the movie, after all of the pain of turmoil caused by the revelation of his lie and the subsequent last-ditch effort to make amends, we are in that same cemetery with the whole Tenenbaum family. They are attending Royal's funeral. The priest walks over to the headstone and reads it, puzzled:


The music chimes in and the family walks out of the plot in slow-motion. Anderson uses this technique to make his audience pause and consider the poignancy of the moment. He's inviting us to consider the proof-read epitaph, and with both depth and levity at the same time, we realize that Royal did rescue his family from such wreckagewreckage caused by himself. We're reminded of his question posed to Margo at the ice cream parlor: "Can't someone be a s--- their whole life and repair the damage? I mean, I think people want to hear that!" He's right. People do want to hear that, because we're all guilty of it from time to time and we all need the forgiveness of our loved ones. That's what makes this movie so great. This kind of movieso quirky and dark at timescould have easily ended otherwise. It could have stayed dark, could have been despairing like so many other movies about dysfunctional families. But Wes Anderson really understands mankind in a profound and childlike way; and he really believes in repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation.

Anderson provides an emblem of Royal's character arc in the figure of Pagoda, the Indian butler (or valet...hat tip to Jeeves) who assists in the hoax. Royal explains to his grandsons that Pagoda saved his life after he was knifed in a bazaar in Calcutta: "He carried me to the hospital on his back." They ask who stabbed him, and he replies, "He did. Yeah, there was a price on my head and he was the hired assassin. Stuck me right in the gut with a shiv." Later in the movie, we see the same scene replay. Once Royal and Pagoda have been exposed as frauds and are thrown out of the house, Pagoda opens up a knife and stabs Royal in the gut, screaming, "You sonofabitch!" Immediately, Pagoda catches Royal as he falls and helps him over to a cab. Royal yells at him, "That's the last time you stick a knife in me, you hear me?!" They go to the YMCA and Pagoda tenderly cleans and dresses the wound. A cycle that takes Royal's entire life to complete happens within a matter of seconds here. It's a very Andersonian deviceodd, funny, subtle, moving. While we're already working on being more like Etheline, maybe we can strive to be like Pagoda, toorepairing the damage the instant that it is made. Try this out next time you hastily stab one of your family members with an offensive remark or a contemptuous eye roll. The sooner the better, as the Tenenbaums would attest.



One final thought about a line from the movie's trailer that I mentioned in the companion post: "Family isn't a word. It's a sentence." I think this is supposed to be a snarky comment by a film marketer whose point probably has little or nothing to do with Wes Anderson's intended message. But I think it can be redeemed. What is a jail sentence for, after all? It is intended to reform a criminalsmooth him or her over by way of work, suffering, and time. Think about the rock tumbler again. And think of every sports analogy for achieving holiness"no pain, no gain." We all need to be mortified in this way because we're all sinners. We all have Royal blood, in that sense. Love can save us from ourselves, and the first person we should love is the one who is right there, sitting next to us at the dinner table. You're ancestors, remember. I'll give Chesterton the last word:
The thing which keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of these great plain limitations which force all of us to meet the things we do not like or do not expect. It is vain for the supercilious moderns to talk of being in uncongenial surroundings. To be in a romance is to be in uncongenial surroundings. To be born into this earth is to be born into uncongenial surroundings, hence to be born into a romance. Of all these great limitations and frameworks which fashion and create the poetry and variety of life, the family is the most definite and important.
Amen.

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Here are some interesting and fun bonus links related to this post.

- The 10 Most Affecting Wes Anderson Moments

- The Royal Tenenbaums: A Values & Visions Guide

- The 42 Most Hilarious Gravestones of All Time

- Embrace New Traditions and Make the Most of Your First Christmas With the In-Laws

Merry Christmas, dear readers!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"We're Ancestors": Some Thoughts for the Holidays (Part 1, Castello Cavalcanti)


'Tis the season for traveling over the river and through the woods to visit parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews"the fam damnly," as my dad says. If you want to be a better person and make the most of the holidays this year, take a little time to read this bit of brilliant wisdom from G.K. Chesterton and his collection of essays titled Heretics, published over 100 years ago. It is quite possibly my favorite thing he ever wrote. It gave me a richer understanding of the family, and my place in it, that changed me forever. It also perfectly explains why I love filmmaker Wes Anderson so much. He is the Chestertonian artist of our age. I'll demonstrate this with some reflections upon his 2013 Prada commercial (of all things) in this first part, and I'll turn to his 2001 film, The Royal Tenenbaums, next month.

Here is a key quote from Chesterton's essay for my purposes:

The modern writers who have suggested, in a more or less open manner, that the family is a bad institution, have generally confined themselves to suggesting, with much sharpness, bitterness, or pathos, that perhaps the family is not always very congenial. Of course the family is a good institution because it is uncongenial. It is wholesome precisely because it contains so many divergencies and varieties. It is, as the sentimentalists say, like a little kingdom, and, like most other little kingdoms, is generally in a state of something resembling anarchy. It is exactly because our brother George is not interested in our religious difficulties, but is interested in the Trocadero Restaurant, that the family has some of the bracing qualities of the commonwealth. It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity. The men and women who, for good reasons and bad, revolt against the family, are, for good reasons and bad, simply revolting against mankind. Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind. Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.
This explains how good it is that we do not choose our own family. Instead, God chooses it for our sanctification. The different temperaments, personalities, and opinions jostle around like a giant rock tumbler, smoothing away our rough edges. Besides rocks, grit and water are added to these machines. Think of these elements as two actions of grace (mortification and purification) which expedite the process of making us smooth and shinymore capable of reflecting back the light of God. In this way, our family forms us, roots us, gives us the perfect environment for self-awareness, and lends perspective on our place in time and space. It is home, and it is where the heart isor at least ought to be. It is certainly where Wes Anderson's heart is.

Take the eight minutes to watch this (Warning: The language is a little rough, like mankind):


If you already love Wes's work, I'm sure your heart started fluttering as soon as the camera moved. His style is so very distinctive. We're told this is Italy, 1955. I don't have anything to say about the fact that this is an ad for Prada, except that I don't care. Any excuse for this to exist is a fine one. Here we have a man, Jed Cavalcanti, who seems to be down on his luck. He is a race car driver who loses control of his car and totals it. Sputtering curses, he explains to the onlookers that his brother-in-law, Gus, is to blame for putting the steering wheel on backwards. In the space of about five minutes of real time, he transforms from being a contemptuous, whiny hot-shot, to being a quiet, thoughtful inheritor of love. I strongly identify with this video because this is exactly what happened to me when I read the Heretics essay in college. Within the span of five minutes, a surprise encounter with great-great-granduncle Chesterton humbled me profoundly. I felt like I, too, crashed my car at the foot of a statue of Jesusthe Stumbling Block and Cornerstoneand the crash set me back on the right track.

Jed's conversion of heart can be understood as a sequence of key moments. First, the townspeople help him put out the fire and move his car, and then they encourage him to get back on the road. These friendly gestures make Jed feel welcome as he walks towards the café to sit down and have "a shot of the local hooch." He then realizes that he is in Castello Cavalcanti, the place of his family's origin. He turns to the men at the table and, shaking each of their hands, says, "Ciao, ciao. You're my ancestors, I think. We're ancestors." He is amazed to learn that the man to his left is Michelangelo, "the one who stayed behind." He tells him with a kiss, "I know you." This is a very poignant moment, because the implication is that Jed comes to know himself in this meeting. He says, "In a way I'm glad I crashed. It's a warning for me. I could've got killed, you know." It's as if the open arms of the Christ statue caught him, and saved him from himself. Warmed by these experiences, his harsh speech with his brother-in-law over the phone is rapidly tempered. Gus cries for Jed, out of guilt for having endangered him, or gratitude that he is all right, or both. Jed forgives him and affectionately calls him "pal." Next, the seemingly aloof barmaid turns on music that she hopes will make her guest more at home. Jed senses this, and then expresses disappointment when the bus suddenly arrives. His "ancestors" gather around the doorway, insisting that he not pay for the drink he ordered. He is family, after all. Touched, he looks on their love and decides to stay a little longer. This illustrates Chesterton's very next point in the essay after the quote above:
Those who wish, rightly or wrongly, to step out of all this, do definitely wish to step into a narrower world. They are dismayed and terrified by the largeness and variety of the family. Sarah wishes to find a world wholly consisting of private theatricals; George wishes to think the Trocadero a cosmos. I do not say, for a moment, that the flight to this narrower life may not be the right thing for the individual, any more than I say the same thing about flight into a monastery. But I do say that anything is bad and artificial which tends to make these people succumb to the strange delusion that they are stepping into a world which is actually larger and more varied than their own. The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.
Jed seems to grasp that the more time spent in this varied company, the better he'll be for it. He'll become fuller, smoother. He orders spaghetti and makes himself at home. Walking through the last frame is a priest in a cassock, adding a sense of solemnity, blessing the whole encounter. It's charming, funny, and beautifulromantic in that distinctly Chestertonian sense. Both Wes Anderson and G.K. Chesterton help us see the family as the most definite and important source of romance in our life, precisely because of its limitations. So the next time you gather with your relatives and start banging around in the proverbial rock tumbler, be sure to let the grit and water do their work. Smile and let it all wash over you. Be merry, and be made smooth.

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Please join me again next time when I'll expand this treatment to include The Royal Tenenbaums:


 "Family isn't a word. It's a sentence." Ha! Happy Thanksgiving!

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Here's another post that I wrote featuring Wes Anderson.  And here's one about family.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Scrutonizing the Hound: A Way of Understanding Our Father's Business


Fall is such a lovely time for weather, clothes, intimations of mortality, and constantly thinking about fox hunting as a metaphor for God's work, right? Yes.

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Recently I have become very well acquainted with two big names of modern cultural influence from Britain: philosopher Roger Scruton and progressive rock artist Kate Bush. The same friend introduced me to both of them and I've spent the last month watching documentaries and listening to interviews to get to know these two remarkable workhorses. I don't think they would mesh well at a cocktail party for a lot of reasons, mainly because Scruton hates pop music. He would see Bush as an outsider to the program of Beauty, tearing down culture rather than building it up. But in the midst of my great interest in both of them, I've found a common denominator that impacts their work and their imaginations: fox hunting. This image is a rich one, particularly for the spiritual life. And I believe Scruton's and Bush's diverse, yet complementary, perspectives on it can add to a Christian appreciation of the Nature of God. I aim to show how the image of a fox hunt can be understood as a kind of courtship ending in divine nuptiality. Alongside Scruton and Bush, I've placed some classic considerations of both fox hunting and God's Nature: Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven" and Sebastian Flyte, one protagonist in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.

My theme is conversion. Imagine we're galloping along together.

A few years ago Roger Scruton was asked to give an interview for a Dutch documentary called Beauty and Consolation. (Watch the whole thing sometime for the full benefit of this post.) He agreed but requested that they come on a day when he would be going fox hunting. He begins to explain why in this clip (start at the 5:00 mark):


To sum up, he says that participating in the hunt is to return to a natural state that brings with it a kind of serenity: "One relaxes into a sense of something greater than oneself." Later on he fleshes this out more. He says that the human being has a hunter-kinship with the rhythms of animal nature, but is also a being of reason. So how do we have consolation, a sense of unity with nature, unity with something greater than ourselves, reintegration with a whole? We engage, as reasoning and loving beings, in the rhythms of nature not by stripping naked and running into the woods but by a ritualized participation in the natural world. This doesn't hold us at a distance because the ritual of the fox hunt allows us to participate in the hunt as the reasoning beings that we are, rather than pretending to be instinct-driven animals. The ceremony of the fox hunt is part of the integration of our reason with the rhythms of nature. In the fox hunt, the human being does what a human being does, but in a way integrated with the whole. It is placid because, as a rational participation in the rhythms of nature, there is no conflict within the person and no conflict between the person and nature. The rider is simply going about the business of being a human being in the natural world; and, by sharing in this ritual with others, he fosters a real participation in a community, giving one a sense of place, a dwelling, a home.

Perhaps this is an especially British thing that was previously lacking in my appreciation of the scenes in Brideshead Revisited which feature fox hunting and all of its trappings. Even after reading the novel and then watching/showing the 1981 miniseries eight times, I didn't grasp the deeper significance of Sebastian running away (underscoring his surname, Flyte) in the midst of the hunt until now. His siblings are gathered on their family estate to enjoy a day of dressing smartly, gallivanting with the locals, and partaking in an enormous tea afterwards. Rather than immersing himself in this ritual and embracing its delights as his more "natural" sister Cordelia does so easily, Sebastian uses it as an opportunity to skulk off to a pub in order to nurse his growing alcoholism. Interestingly, when Scruton talks about the sorts of false and fleeting consolations that we all tend to seek, his perfect example is drink. Mr. Flyte flees the hunt which is intended to bind him to lifenature and cultureand instead sips his way towards deathisolation and despair. No longer part of the flock, he is a lost sheep.

The plight of this poor soul closely follows that of the real-life figure Francis Thompson who lived in England in the late 19th century. This handy flier from an art museum describes Thompson's life as a Catholic who at one point wanted to become a priest but, when that didn't work out, he went to medical school. While there he became addicted to opium. Sent down from school just like Sebastian, he moved to London in hopes of pursuing a literary lifestyle. The articles goes on: "A series of setbacks followed and he ended up penniless, homeless, suicidal, and still drug-dependent." At last a Good Samaritan became aware of this and arranged for Thompson to have an extended stay at a monastery as a means of overcoming the addiction. While there he penned his magnum opus, "The Hound of Heaven," a poem which earned the admiration of G.K. Chesterton. It became a work with which every Catholic school child in England was familiar, including J.R.R. Tolkien. (Students at Thomas Aquinas College in California are still memorizing it today.) Thompson never fully recovered from his addiction and required the care of his friends for twenty years while he relapsed over and over. How similar is this image to that of Sebastian in the monastery hospital being visited by his dear friend Charles, whose only real comfort to him can be a bottle of brandy. Yet in the midst of that lowness can come true humilitya deep awareness of one's utter dependence on God. Grace be thanked, that is what made Francis Thompson a poet, and Sebastian Flyte a saint.

"The Hound of Heaven" imagines God pursuing man as a dog pursues a fox. (Here is an excellent dramatic reading of the poem by Richard Burton who perfectly captures the heart-pounding energy of the chase.) One essay about the poem reminds us that this idea is not as audacious as it may at first seem: "It is as old as Adam and Eve, who hid themselves from the face of God." It has additional Christian sanction in the Good Shepherd who goes out to seek the sheep that is lost. In this convention, it is God the Father who is the shepherd and Christ is the faithful hound who goes about his Father's business of superintending the flock. It is this idea that I want to seize on: Thompson's tale is not one of a savage beast relentlessly hunting its prey, but rather of a "tremendous lover" reclaiming his dear one; thus our "Father's business" (Luke 2:49) of pursuing the sinner is rendered sympathetic, attractive, moving. We should be overjoyed that we are desired so strongly that this great Fido (which means "faithful one") will stop at nothing to win us back from the clutches of sin and death. Man's best friend, indeed. In the poem, the hunted seems somewhat aware of this. He does not fear the Hound for its fierceness; he fears, rather, to be caught:
For, though I know His love Who followed,
Yet was I sore adread
Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside.
Thompson understands that all sin is a misguided search for happinessor to use Scruton's word, consolation. Another essay points out, "No sooner has he got away from God than he is conscious of the pursuit. He must continue flight if he is not to be overtaken. And in his flight he cannot stay to enjoy the pleasures he had hoped for." This is how living in sin is already a hell on earth. Nothing that is not from God can truly satisfy.

The language of the poem turns nuptial in the second half, illustrating the idea of God as Divine Bridegroom, to consummation with whom each and every soul is called:
Naked I wait Thy love's uplifted stroke!
My harness piece by piece Thou hast hewn from me,
And smitten me to my knee;
I am defenseless utterly.
The poet is overtaken, at last stripped of everything that would hinder his union with Christ: his attachment to sinful pleasures, but also to every created thing. Complete nakedness, or detachment from creatures, is demanded; nothing whatsoever may compete with the all-sufficient Love of the Bridegroom. (This image also calls to mind what became of Eustace Scrubb, which I wrote about here.) There is a kind of sacramental violence at work, but it should be understood in the Biblical sense of mortification and death as a prerequisite for life. It is a dramatic sundering of oneself from comfort, from shame, from self-consciousness. Basically, it looks like this:


This of course is Bernini's incredible "Teresa of Ávila in Ecstasy," one of my favorite things on earth. Just beholding it is akin to taking a whole semester on The Theology of the Body. I'll leave an elaboration on that in the comments if anyone is interested; for now I want to use it as a pivot point as I turn to the final player in this English quartet...

When I first heard the voice of Kate Bush two weeks ago, I winced. After watching over a dozen music videos, I sat dumbfounded and uncomfortable. Some of her work is like a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. But one song/video that I found not only entirely palatable but also enjoyable is the single from her album "The Hounds of Love" by the same name. It is far more Bernini than Bosch. Take a few minutes to watch this:


Obviously, the lyrics evoke the same sort of imagery as "The Hound of Heaven," and since we know that God, after all, is Love, I think Bush's song invites a close comparison. Kate Bush was raised Roman Catholic and attended Catholic high school. It is very likely that she would have studied this poem during that time, but I can't find any place where she credits it as an inspiration. She explains in one interview that the idea just came to her:
I started coming across the line about 'hounds' and I thought the whole idea of being chased by this lovethat when it gets you it's going to rip you to pieces and have your guts all over the floor. So this...being hunted by loveI liked the imagery, I thought it was really good.
We should smile at the possibility that the seed Thompson planted through his work died in her teenage-girl mind and was reborn as this song. Focusing at first on the music, one can easily detect motifs like baying dogs, running feet, clambering and soaring as you might expect from a fox chase. But what you can also hear that is made explicit in the video is the tango-like dance beat. This pursuit is a courtship. Just like Thompson, Bush confesses, "I don't know what's good for me," as she has been seeking the wrong forms of consolation. Suddenly, she allows herself to be caught, and this moment is beautifully depicted in the video by her lover whisking her away by her hand. Here the metaphor of the fox hunt stops, is turned on its head, and gives way to a new vision: a bridegroom claiming his bride. There's no ripping of flesh and guts on the floor in a literal sense, but more in a spiritual one: broken open and bare before the beloved just as Thompson described. This exact moment of reclamation is just the same as in "The Hound of Heaven":
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might'st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child's mistake
Fancies are lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!'

Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
'Ah fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.' 
 

This is such a striking and profoundly moving scene which (among a hundred other things) serves to round out the rest of the lyrics from Kate Bush's song. Both artists begin as children hiding, then become conscience-pricked adults ashamed of running away. They seek refuge in the arms of the beloved, and both make the leap of faith by clasping the outstretched hand. The hand is everything. It is the gesture of invitation which God extends to all of us. It is the proof that we are free creatures, always consensual in the act of Divine Love. Would that Bush understood her expression of erotic/romantic love as a precursor to the agapic love that Thompson enjoys. She celebrates that feeling of release and consolation by howling, "Take my shoes off and throw them in the lake." Would that this image were a Mosaic one, and that she embraced her true identity as a spiritual spouse of that Burning Bush. She asks her beloved, "Do you know what I really need? Do you know what I really need?" By the end of the song, after clasping his hand, she has been shown the greater good. She concludes with this revelation: "I need love love love love love." Anytime I see five of anything in a piece of British art, I can't help but imagine that on some levelconsciously or unconsciouslythe artist is calling to mind the Five Wounds of Christ, that country's emblematic devotion. All the imagery of piercing and tearing and delivering oneself into hands comes to a fantastic crescendo therein.

This brings us back to Roger Scruton. Even though he is not actually a Christian, he gets the Crucifixion on some level. In the aforementioned interview, he says that it "has been the central image of consolation in our tradition, and it's a most extraordinary idea. [...] A path of renunciation which is also an acceptance. It's not the path that I have the strength to take." He says that the Crucifixion remains a kind of ultimate symbol, but evidently not more. His view is a humble one, however. He says that he doesn't know how to answer these theological questions and finally stops the interviewer with a slightly embarrassed and very endearing smile, saying, "Now that's enough of that subject."

I can't help but love him. I feel a font of affection spring forth when I watch this interview. Particularly when he speaks about his unhappy childhood, I see a Sebastian Flyte who never had an Aloysius or a Nanny Hawkins. My maternal impulse beats. I want to chase him down like the Hound, extend my hand, and show him what the life of faith can be. That's what I'm trying to do here. A quote from Thomas Aquinas summarizes my theme: "To convert somebody, go and take them by the hand and guide them." The twitch upon the thread is really a tug upon the wrist.

Dear Roger Scruton, what if you could believe that it is not your strength that would help you embrace the cross but that it is God's own, freely given to you? What if you studied "The Hound of Heaven" closely and saw that the hunt which you understand and appreciate so fully is actually the very business of God in all its naturalness and serenity? Your unique perspective has something to teach every fox/sinner who is afraid of being caught. You say that if we are made in the image of God, then God must be even more personal, more loving, more rational than we are. To us, God looks more like a hound than a fox-hunter; we are foxes. And that is because, just as the placid fox hunter goes about His business in a way that transcends animal experience and instinct, so too does God Himself go about His business in a way that, while supremely rational and loving in itself, is glimpsed by us, piecemeal and partially. This is because God is above nature, supernatural; and we cannot comprehend Him as He comprehends Himself. God's ways transcend our ability to grasp them. And yet He is going about His business. What happens when God catches us? He catches us up into the supernatural realm that He inhabitsa transcendent consolation, a re-membership in God that transcends what we could procure. The fox-hunter can fully embrace the nature of the hunt, going about the business of nature in a human (because rational/ritualized) manner; this is consoling. However, the human being as hunted by God cannot enter into the hunt unless the human being is somehow brought into God's perspective, where what seems frenetic and terrifying to the human becomes placid and consoling when that same human is elevated to partake of God's own life. Then the human being stands in the position of a mediatorhaving membership by natural constitution in the rhythms of nature and having membership by supernatural elevation in the rhythms of the divine life. That is why "The Hound of Heaven" can end as it does only if written from a supernatural perspective. Without entering into the rhythm of the divine life, one could never perceive God's hunting as something peaceful or consoling, "going about His business," because one would not have access to God's "business." But there is a bit of a paradox, because one can only enter into God's business if one lets oneself be "caught" by the Heavenly Hound. Therefore, in the mysterious workings of the divine hunt, there is already a sense of consolation because part of God's hunting is His empowering of the individual to allow themselves to be caughti.e., the first graces of conversion are those that empower the will to accept or reject faith in the Lord.

Notice, too, dear Roger, that this celestial pursuit is not limited merely to one stray lamb but includes all of the created order. As the essayist linked above said, "What meaning this cosmic hunt possesses and how it is related to the love-hunt of man's soul require a consideration of God's other book [besides the Bible], nature, and of Thompson's orthodox interpretation of nature." This is totally your thing! You met your wife while hunting. So does God.

What if it's not just man's search for meaning but also Meaning's search for man? What if we all read This Tremendous Lover (a spiritual classic, the title of which comes from Thompson's poem)? And then what if we saw eccentric Kate Bush as not just another pop star destroying culture but as almost a kind of mystic who might understand the nuptial bond between Christ and His Bride better than most of us? What if the alcoholic and the opiate-addict at the margins have something crucial to teach us about Our Father's Business of unconditional love? What if the last shall be first?

Let the hunt commence. 


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HALLOWEEN BONUS: Some of you may wish to revisit your childhood this weekend with this episode of Nickelodeon's Are You Afraid of the Dark? titled "The Tale of the Hungry Hounds". My apologies if it's not spiritually edifying in any sense other than nostalgia for your own Arcadia.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Soichin' for Sumthin': Billy Joel's Dip in the River


I took off two months from blogging in order to move. Now I'm back at it with a post that I did not see coming. I have a list of topics that I can hardly wait to tackle, but the surprise ideas are really fun, too. Billy Joel's 1993 hit "The River of Dreams" came out 21 years ago today and the artist's current US tour just wrapped up. So the time is right. Let us go down to the river together.

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The first time I ever listened to Billy Joel on purpose was last week. I was a little kid when he was really popular and my parents were decidedly not fans, preferring instead the likes of Tom Petty and Dire Straits. Thus, my only brushes with Joel were in high school when my boyfriend memorized "We Didn't Start the Fire" and summertime in college after every single shift at P.F. Chang's when my drive home inexplicably coincided with "Piano Man" being played on the radio. (I still smell soy sauce whenever I hear that song.)

But I accidentally quoted him to a friend which inspired her to send me this audio clip (included below) in which Joel describes the inspiration behind "The River of Dreams." Full disclosure: I don't love this song and I mostly think about The Lion King as I listen to it. Yet this monologue is perfect fodder for my blog (the relevant part starts at 3:09):



This is my favorite kind of thing. God comes to us even when we're not looking for Him and sprinkles the seeds of "good infection," as C.S. Lewis called it. Billy Joel was raised in a non-practicing Jewish family and occasionally attended Catholic Mass with his friends when he was a kid. At the age of 11, he was baptized in a Church of Christ (Hat tip to Wikipedia). Bingo. What's the "something sacred I lost"? There it isbaptismal grace. He says repeatedly in the lyrics and in interviews about the song that he doesn't know what it is, but it's clear that he has a deeply felt sense of it. And it's even more clear that the sacred thing is to be found in the visuals that haunt his imagination: they are Biblical, and they are specifically Baptismal.

Joel knows that he is preoccupied with something beyond him, beyond his comprehension. I think that is what fuels his desire to add a chant preface to the song. He says he wrote a lyric about a man who has lost his faith and wanted to translate it into Latin. He knows that Latin has a special place in religious worship. But because it is not something that he himself practices, he calls this impulse "pretentious." He's reaching out and up to something beyond, and then loses heart at the thought that it is not for him. He's not that kind of guy. He doesn't want to pose as if he is. He doesn't want to be ridiculed by those that know him. So he drops it.

I noticed the same thing going on with him in this video from his 1993 Saturday Night Live appearance. While singing "River of Dreams," he pronounces the lyric comically: "I was soichin' for somethin'," as if to say, I'm not taking this too seriously"God knows I'm not a spiritual man," and all that. His body language throughout the video betrays the same attitude. Also, he avoids most of the high notes from the original recording as if he's slightly embarrassed of them. But, as if to compensate for this timidity, he shows off his musical cred by playing a few very challenging classical pieces between practice takes. He is the Piano Man, after all.

Similarly, in the interview clip, he says that he did not want to write a song with three chords. It's been done to death and again he is worried about his imageabout being original. Again I think of Lewis:
Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it (Mere Christianity).
Happily, Billy Joel's apprehension is defeated by truth. This idea really came to him. He really had a dream that showed him these things and inspired these words. He must tell that story. I love that an experience in real watersinging in the showercontributes so much to the development of the song. The shower seems to function as a figment of the very thing that he has lost and has been searching for. It mortifies his self-consciousness in order to let the truth of the experience shine through him. He even uses the language of death to describe it. As he was lathering up and listening to the echo, he overcame his embarrassment over the triteness of the three-chord progression and pretentiousness of a non-spiritual man writing a spiritual song: "I was a dead duck." In another interview, he says, "I was toast." The song transcended him. It made itself known. It was a good song with a very good message. Ultimately, its goodness came from God. "All that is good comes from God" (James 1:17). As Joel puts it, "I got religion in the shower! I don't know what happened!" 

 And so, in spite of the artist himself, "River of Dreams" came to be. He says, "I didn't know why I was writing the things I was writing. But if you're a writer and you get an idea, heygo with it, you know?" What a great way to describe Divine inspiration. The word "get" even implies a giver. His prefession of atheism seems a little rocky at this point. At the end of the audio clip, Joel says,
It was this spiritual... thing. And I mean those things happen all the time. I know they happen with artists. Artists can kinda tune into that sometimes, even though we don't know we're tuning into it we're there. We have our hands in something and we don't know what it is. But there's an awful lot of spirituality to it.
Isn't this awesome? Here is Billy Joel struggling to articulate Tolkien's much more developed idea of the artist as "subcreator." When I learned that model Christy Brinkley"ex number two at the time"painted the artwork for the album, I wondered if there might be more glimmers of God shining through the artist...

As Joel rightly says, "A river is a religious icon." (This one happens to be from my family's own Little Oratory.)  But did Brinkley deliberately render her husband's "stream of consciousness" as a religious icon? That's what it looks like! But again, at least according to this interview that she gave, the artist does not fully grasp what she was inspired to create. Consider the similarities between these two images. First of all, Billy Joel's shoulders and head fit the shape of the Jordan River. Next, the trees and mountains are basically in the same place. John the Baptist seems to be mirrored by the leopard. Angels attend nearby and the placement of the bright orb (the moon?) is very near the placement of the Holy Spirit, both streaming light upon the subject. The colors are all very similar, yet somewhat inverted. Finallyand I may be going too far heredo you see how much the facial features of Billy Joel resemble the torso of Christ?? Whoa! God seems to be calling very loudly to these two, "Get thee to a baptistry!" Or, at least in the case of Billy Joel or someone else who has already been baptized, get thee to a confessional in order to enjoy the Sacrament of baptismal renewal. It is there that Joel, Brinkley, and all of us can find and have restored the "sumthin' sacred" we've lost: the state of grace. 

The last stanza of the song begins:
I'm not sure about a life after this / God knows I've never been a spiritual man
Baptized by the fire, I wade into the river / That runs to the promised land
One Christ-haunted night, Billy Joel waded in. Will he follow the river where it runs? Will he continue to dip into these cleansing waters in one way or another for however many years he has left to live? He says in the middle of the song, "I hope it doesn't take the rest of my life / Until I find what it is that I've been looking for." Let us meet him in that hope by praying for this wayfaring artist. Our prayers can move mountains, perhaps the very "mountains of faith" that Joel saw in his dream. And while we're praying for him, we can reach out to those friends and family members of ours who love his music and share the audio clip. Let us cry out in the wilderness the immortal words of Delmar from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, "Come on in, boys. The water is fine."

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One final comment: Though it does not appear in the official lyrics, Billy Joel always sings the word "Gloria" on top of the music as the song fades out. This is an homage to an old doo-wop song; but I like to think that it is also Joel's way of squeezing in a bit of that "pretentious" Ambrosian chant after all. I see you winking, Piano Man.

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If you liked this post, I recommend two earlier ones that I wrote about music (Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons) which rely heavily on an excellent lecture, "Three Chords and the Desire for Truth: Rock 'n' Roll and the Search for the Infinite." I also have this post which is similarly about Baptismal themes in music. Finally, this video from Harvard Sailing Team humorously illustrates how hard it is to talk about music. As always, I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Alterdiluvian Art: A Sampling of Superior Noahs


I did not see Noah when it was first released (mostly because of this and this). I waited until it came to the dollar theater. In short, I hated it and silently screamed, "This is the worst movie ever!" into my hair-entangled wringing hands over and over again. I was upset for two main reasons: 1) There were several very young children in the audience and many scenes in the movie are seriously disturbing (gratuitously so, even for adults), and 2) I've spent the last month thinking about the Flood story by repeatedly watching the excellent trailer on YouTube (which manages to tell a different story from the full movie), attending a performance of and subsequently listening to Benjamin Britten's opera Noye's Fludde, revisiting Wes Anderson's movie Moonrise Kingdom, and enjoying the delightful illustrations of Peter Spier's book, Noah's Ark. The edification and inspiration that I've drawn from all these was nowhere to be found in my experience of Darren Aronofsky's perverse concoction. What a shame to spend so much time, money, and talent on that.

I don't want to spend a whole post bemoaning the movie because I don't care to relive it all and because I don't have much time to blog these days. But I will say a few things to contrast it with the three good pieces of art mentioned above which are actually worthy of your liturgical imagination.

Wes Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers. (Here is an interview which will give you a good idea of what he's like.) I love his childlikeness, his humor, his sensitivity, and his deep appreciation and understanding of the human condition. I think his 2012 creation, Moonrise Kingdom, is the best example of all these virtues. My former boss told me that he rereads all of Jane Austen's novels every year according to the season. Less impressively, I do the same thing with Wes Anderson's movies: Rushmore in the fall, The Royal Tenebaums in winter, etc. Along with The Life Aquatic, this is definitely a summertime movie:


On the fictitious island of New Penzance, Benjamin Britten's opera Noye Fludde is performed every year. In the midst of one summer's show, a young boy and girl meet, form a friendship, and plot to runaway together. The opera becomes the backdrop and narrative structure for the film. Sam and Suzy function as a recapitulation Noah and his wife as they take shelter in a Church during a major flood. They are also a new Adam and Eve who are in need of greater love than their earthly parents can give them. Themes of adoption, loyalty, forgiveness, hope, and perseverance permeate the film; and the flood effectively baptizes the main characters. It is a lot of fun, and the soundtrack, prominently featuring Britten's music, has been nonstop entertainment for my kids whenever we've been in the car for the last month.

"Sometimes the music comes first." Wes Anderson begins his preface to the soundtrack booklet with that statement. He goes on:
In the late fifties, Benjamin Britten created a sort of opera called "Noye's Fludde" which he intended to be performed by amateur groups in churches (with a few ringers thrown in, I thinkthe way the fancy ones sometimes do). The members of the chorus are the animals on Noah's ark. My friend Sanjay and I played a pair of otters, and my older brother sang as an elk. This was in 1979 at St. Francis Episcopal Day School, 345 Piney Point Road, Houston, Texas, 77024. I remember the full details and zip code because there was a poster contest each year for our school book fair, and that was the key information you had to get across. Anyway, I can more or less trace all the inspirations for MOONRISE KINGDOM to that address. The events are fictionaland most of the names have not been changed. 
I love the way he was inspired. How fun it was to realize that the trumpet sounds in the opera must have been the basis for the Khaki Scout subplot. After already seeing Moonrise Kingdom four times, I finally had the chance to see Noye's Fludde live performed by a local children's choir and orchestra. That helped me appreciate Anderson's work much more, particularly the question that Sam asks Suzy, "What kind of bird are you?" The birds have different meanings, different identities. She is the raventhe black bird who flies away from the Ark and does not return. But the opera reassures us that she is not lost. Noye sings: "Ah, Lorde, wherever this raven be, Somewhere is drye, well I see." This helps us to understand her character more. She might not return with the olive branch as the dove does, but she is not drowned. Though she continues to have secret rendezvous with Sam, she has not left her home or her family in any permanent way. She may be a black sheep, but she is not a lost one.

Britten's opera is a musical setting of one of the Chester Miracle plays, Medieval allegories written in the fourteenth century by ordinary people. Britten chose to celebrate the role of the ordinary in his piece by having only a few virtuoso parts while the rest of the singing is done by children and by the audience all together. When I experienced the show live, I had a profound sense of the Ark as the Church, God's vessel carrying all of us towards the New Eden. It also reminded me of how much I love being a part of a production like that and how much I miss directing high school plays. I thought of a idea from the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre who believes that it is very important for everyone participate in a theatrical performance at some point in his or her life. He knows the profound impact that it has for one to engage in such a practiceto enjoy planning, rehearsing, and performing with a group of people who each have a different role, be it backstage or out front. He believes this sort of activity builds character, builds community, and in so doinglittle by littlesaves culture. Participating in the live performance of Noye's Fludde with the cast made all of us part of the crew, the play's as well as the ship's.

If you'd like to see a somewhat grainy but very rich performance of the opera online, YouTube has the full show. My favorite part is when all of the animals board the Ark, singing "Kyrie Eleison":


Since my first son was born, I have become a major zoo-lover. His fascination with the animalslearning all of their names and observing their behaviorshas been very inspiring for me. I really do feel like a child again. All winter, while the zoo has been closed we have been listening to the wonderful musical suite, The Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns. Now that summer is here, we visit the animals about three times per week and we try to focus our attention on just one or two of them each time. My kids and I meditate on the place in the universe of each species, aware that God deliberately and bizarrely willed each and every one of them.

That leads me to Peter Spier's deliciously detailed book, Noah's Ark, which won a Caldecott medal in 1978 (the year before Wes Anderson was an otter in the playperhaps it inspired a resurgence of Diluvian appreciation as I'm attempting to do here). There is almost no text in the whole book, just page after page of beautiful and careful illustrations. My favorite pages are the ones in the middle which show Noah lovingly watching the animals do what they do. He smiles as he rests against door frames, delighting in their innocence and uniqueness.

Oh, how I had hoped that the Noah movie would be more like this. It's not all smiles and pleasant musings on Spier's ark, mind you. We see Noah shoveling mounds and mounds of excrement, struggling with worry, knocking about as the huge ship pitches in storms. And the Flood itself is a troubling, difficult thing that is not glossed over. There's a page which shows the animals who were not needed beyond the designated pairs looking at the ark as the water rises around them. Parental guidance is needed.

Inside the ark, the animals are central to the story. The question, 'What would it be like to be inside a giant wooden boat with thousands of animals for forty days and forty nights' is very seriously and creatively considered. In the Aronofsky film, that issue is swiftly and cheaply handled: The animals are all drugged to sleep and are unconscious the whole time they're on the ship (to allow more focus on Noah losing his mind and plotting to murder his grandchildren. Sigh.). I fantasized about Maria Montessori coming back to life to direct the film-version of Spier's book. It would have been so thoughtful and so much more interesting. It would handle death and suffering responsibly while also inviting the viewer to imitate the virtues of the animals, especially their simplicity, their satisfaction with the present moment, and their sometimes surprising heroism. Imagine something like this as a scene in a movie about the Flood:


Noah might have been inspired to believe that the corrupt nature of mankind can indeed be transcended, just as these animal instincts were. When he imagines himself to be capable of cannibalism and decides that all of humanity (including his family) ought to be wiped out, he might have instead thought, "But for the grace of God, there go I." The Creator overcomes all sorts of things in the movie (barren wasteland instantly transformed into massive deciduous forest, for instance), why not the power to sustain Noah as a "righteous man, blameless in his generation" (Genesis 6:9)?

The Aronofsky movie is not based on or inspired by the Bible, pure and simple. But if you want something that is, by all means try Noye's Fludde for starters and then Moonrise Kingdom and Peter's Spier's book. Or, just watch the trailer for the Noah movie and let your imagination expand it into the thrilling, gorgeous epic that might have been and is still waiting to be created through your own artistic expression. Or have a look around at some of the other Chester Miracle/Mystery plays for inspiration. Wes Anderson concludes the preface to his soundtrack quoted above with a challenge: "Perhaps one of the recordings on this record will inspire someone among you to make a movie, as it did for me. If so, I will look forward to seeing it." And as C.S. Lewis said to his friend J.R.R. Tolkien one day as they considered the dearth of good art in the culture, "Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I'm afraid we shall have to write some ourselves."

Even if it means organizing a production of Noye's Fludde in your neighborhood or submitting a poem to a literary journal, do take up the torch, dear reader. Since this is the season for commencement addresses, I'll leave you with Neil Gaiman's memorable line from a few years back: Make good art.

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There's an episode from season 6 of Mad Men titled, "The Flood" which does make reference to Noah's Ark. I haven't worked out all of my thoughts on it, but I'd be willing to if one of you would like to talk about it. I'm hoping that a full post about the series after next year's finale will be my blog's magnum opus. Stay tuned!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Arbor Day as an Excuse to Write About "The Tree of Life"


If you've been following my blog for a while, you'll notice that I like to write about things when they are relevant to the culture and/or the calendar. It's a way of living liturgically that I've long enjoyed. I've wanted to write about my favorite movie of all time, The Tree of Life, since it first graced me with its existence three years ago. My mom joked that I should write about it on Arbor Day, so here we are.

I saw the trailer for Terrence Malick's masterpiece in the early spring of 2011. It had been one year since I had left my exciting job at a high-profile university in order to stay home full time with my firstborn son. As any mom who has made that choice knows, sometimes home-life can start to feel rather monotonous and tiresome. In the midst of an emotional slump made worse by lingering cold air and gray skies, I happened upon this preview and was reminded of an exchange between George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton which was quoted by Dale Alquist at a speaking event. I don't remember it exactly, but the gist is that Shaw said that life at home is "as dull as dishwater." In his usual fashion, Chesterton had a quick reply: "Ahh... but have you ever looked at dishwater under a microscope? It's teeming with quiet fun!" Watch this (linked in case the video below doesn't work on your device) and you'll get it:

 

It was a very important moment for me. All of the spirituality of S. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Josemaría Escrivá that had long been so attractive suddenly became much more poignant and visceral. The "little way" of "ordinary holiness" relies on one's paradigm becoming a childlike one which sees with the eyes of humility, wonder, and joy. The trailer illustrates this idea. Fortunately, I had studied the song that plays along with the images, "The Moldau" by Bedřich Smetana, and wrote an essay about it in college. (I can't seem to find it now but it was something like this.) So I already knew that the song was a poem about a river which functions as a metaphor about the various milestones that we hit as we flow through our lives. Hearing this powerful and beautiful song while seeing ordinary moments of play and discovery in childhood moved me beyond words. I looked forward to the release of the movie with about as much anticipation as people looking ahead to graduation, a wedding, childbirth, retirement, and even death. I knew I would be a better me on the other side. Unfortunately, our little town's theaters don't usually get fancy Palme d'Or-winning films. So I wrote a letter to the director of the university's performing arts center pleading that it be shown there. Thanks be to God, they did it. 

The date of the one and only showing coincided with a time in which my husband and I felt called to welcome another child in our little family of three. Pondering that in my heart when we went to the theater, I can't tell you the levels of happiness, awe, and sublimity that I enjoyed. I wept the entire time. I focused on the theme of motherhood especially, thinking about my two-year-old and how at last we were giving him a sibling. My husband and I went home and talked about the movie for four straight hours (this is my idea of ultimate fun, by the way). I was more moved than I had even hoped I would be.

For four long and nauseous months, I played the Moldau for my son who loved the song immediately. He requested it multiple times per day. We would dance and twirl (Jessica Chastain-style) in the living room blaring it loudly. It helped overcome the crippling fatigue that overshadowed that fall. Then, as I eased into my second trimester, I suddenly felt a thousand times better and I enjoyed the reassuring little flutters of the child within me. But that only lasted a single day. I went to my doctor for a routine heartbeat-check and he heard no thump but my own increasingly panicking pulse. An ultrasound confirmed that our baby was dead. The next few days are a blur of anguish. It was the week before Christmas. I was induced and after eleven hours of labor, my husband and I held our second child in the palms of our hands.

I was very anxious to see my family afterwards, to find a way to comfort them since words failed us over the phone. We drove across the country the day after Christmas and the best way that I could imagine sharing in "the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God" (Graham Greene) with my loved ones was to show them The Tree of Life. Together, we beheld the majesty of this glorious film, and this time I focused on the theme of death. Like the mother in the film, I had lost my second child. If you haven't seen it, the movie is a meditation on suffering framed by a quote from the Book of Job 38: 4,7:
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?…When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? 
My dear friend who is the godmother of my firstborn son uses the film to teach her students about suffering in the Christian tradition. It is absolutely perfect for that. It juxtaposes the macrocosm of the universe from the beginning of time with the microcosm of a family in Waco, TX in the 1950s. It celebrates the human drama that has been repeated throughout the ages. It reminds us that "there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9). It tells the story of a son being reborn through the memory of his mother's faith. It explores fear and shame and forgiveness and love with spectacular imagery and tremendous music. It reawakens the viewer to the sacredness of the present moment and the innocence of youth that must be regained if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven. It was originally 24-hours long and was painfully difficult for Malick to cut, for in many ways it is the story of his own life. Now that I've seen Chartres Cathedral with my own eyes and been to a Mumford & Sons concert with my beloved brother, meeting Terrence Malick in person is at the very top of my bucket list.

I saw the film once again very recently. A friend of mine was preparing a talk about the Augustinian elements in the film and he wanted audience feedback to be part of his research. Thanks to that, the experience of it is very fresh in my mind, heart, and soul as I enter into yet another major milestone in my life, another narrative playing out along the banks of the Moldau: my husband has been offered his first job as a professor and we are moving away from the place where we became a family. The end of the film (when the family moves) has all new relevance. Each day, I look around and appreciate the things about this apartment and this town that I will dearly miss, especially now that it's spring. A central image in the movie is that of a very large tree in the backyard of the family's house. The camera returns to it time and time again to represent their lives as well as the life of the world. I, too, have a special tree that blooms every year at this time, usually within the Easter Octave as it has this year. It has always been the most beautiful feature of our apartment building, and we've taken family photos in front of it for years. After the miscarriage, we had another son who is now a year-and-a-half. He is lightning in a bottle. It's amazing to think that if the second child had not died, he would not exist. We visit the grave of our child (which is under the most lovely tree in the whole grove) with him from time to time, and I always hear the Moldau in my head as I contemplate the mysteries of this life. I return home to the beautiful tree, which we can see through our many windows.

To tie a bow on this post, I have a happy piece of news to share. In a familiar way, God has given us a sweet sign of His Providence. We have made an offer on a house in our future hometown. It is on a street named after trees. Today is the day that the owners told us that they would respond, and it happens to be Arbor Day. That's enough for me to know that it's ours, and that God is so very good indeed. When I first saw a photo of the house, I felt the familiar warm rush of joy flow through my heart, for it boasts a beautiful tree. This is why I haven't posted in a while. House-hunting is a mighty time-consuming affair, as you may well know. But thankfully, it has not been an anxious one. I've had the peace of knowing that right house would be made clear, and it certainly has.

This Arbor Day (or whenever you read this), go hug a tree (*wink*) and imagine that it represents your whole liferoots, rings, blooms and all; and be sure to give thanks to your Maker whom you will one day meet.

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If anyone would like to ask or just talk more about the content or meaning of The Tree of Life, I'd be plenty happy to do so in the comments or via email. Treat yourself and your family this Easter season by buying it here! I hope you won't turn it off when the dinosaurs show up...