“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.

Monday, March 24, 2014

"Well You Have Met Me Now": The Sister and the Rapper

The latest viral video sensation is something you need to experience. The last time I checked, it had nearly twenty-five million views on YouTube (though the seventh million shouldn't really count because that was all just me. Heh.). An Ursuline Sister named Cristina Scuccia performed on the Italian version of the television talent show, The Voice, and the response from the judges and the audience was absolutely amazing. After watching the clip the first time (before I knew how to turn on the English subtitles), I was most struck with how quickly and willingly the audience embraced the habited young woman. She had barely sung a single note when suddenly everyone was on their feet cheering loudly. When her song ended, they chanted in unison the Italian word for sister, "Sor-ell-a! Sor-ell-a!" Clearly the state of the Church in Italy is way better shape than I thought. (Thank you, Pope Francis!) The next few (dozen) times that I watched it with the benefit of the dialogue following the song, I zeroed in on the judge she chose to be her coach, rapper "J-Ax". The profound transformation that he undergoes through Sister Cristina is one of the most inspiring things I've ever seen.

I pray that I am correct in assuming that everyone reading this knows what it is be deeply movedto be electrified with light and joy through a direct encounter with beauty. I hope that when you read or hear the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus you can imagine what the three apostles experienced as they fell on their faces with awe and adoration. I hope that some event in your life made it easier for you to identify with Peter when he said, "It is good that we are here," and wanted to start worshiping right then and evermore. But have you ever actually watched someone else have that experience in real life? If you already clicked the above link and watched it, please do it again and this time concentrate on J-Ax (be sure to hit the CC for the subtitles to appear). Then, let's break it down together.

First, consider how his reaction differs from those of the other three judges. They are clearly shocked, amused, and even touched. The blonde one is so curious that she wants to interview Sister Cristina right then and there. Her first question is, "Are you a real nun?" Later the red-headed judge says when she first looked she thought she was day-dreaming. The gestures and expressions of all three signify that they are really into it, but what is happening in that third chair under that skull cap is altogether much deeper and higher. Tears. Tears and tears and more tears. When he swivels around, the look on his face is like a child seeing fireworks for the first time. But then the paradox of what he sees begins to take shape in his heart. (Of course this is my own interpretation here, but just go with it.) Some beautiful and innocent form from his youth has suddenly appeared in the midst of his current fame. Worlds are collidingpast and present, sweet and sour, hugs and hits. It's like the scene when Anton Ego eats the ratatouille and has a flashback about his mom:

When J-Ax finally speaks to Cristina, he tells her, "If I had met you during the Mass when I was a child, now I would be Pope. I would surely have attended all of the functions [awkward YouTube translator]." This is an incredible statement. If he had encountered her energy, her capacity for joy and faith in his youth, he would have gone all the way. He doesn't say he would have wanted to date her or something. He says he would have been inspired to follow her, and that such a path would have led him to the top of the Church. He would have attended all of the "functions"the Masses, funerals, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, ordinations, canonizations, papal elections, feast day parties, Bible studies, Theology on Tap nights, Brideshead Revisited marathons, vespers, holy hoursthe "functions" that so many of us attend and take for granted every day. Her reply is absolutely perfect in its clarity and simplicity: "Well you have met me now." Flood of tears from me at those magnificent words. The voice that shouted the same words to me ten years ago was not an Alicia Keys song but a High Tridentine Mass. I thought, "Where were you?? I would have attended all of the functions!!" That was the encounter with grace that launched my reversion. How awesome it is to watch it happen to another soul through another means.

There are so many Biblical allusions in my mind that I feel like I might have a stroke: burning bush, lost sheep, prodigal son, (go ahead and just shout them out at the screen) the Transfiguration (as I already mentioned), the Finding of the Child Jesus. But here, it is Sister Cristina who finds the little child still living and breathing underneath those tattoos. The baptismal waters which cleansed him as a infant seem to wash him anew through his joyful tears. It's like Ajax for J-Ax ("Stronger Than Dirt."). Behold the transformation: Unselfconsciously, J-Ax smiles, cries, giggles, cries some more, wipes his eyes with his arms, curls up in his chair as if he wants to hide himself so she won't see how ridiculous he looks. It's like Adam covering his nakedness before God. While she is deliberating over which coach to join, you can see in his eyes the "Pick me! Pick me!" of every kid who ever wanted to play kickball. And when she does choose himfor he chose her first based on her voice alonehe leaps out of his chair, scoops her up in his arms, and spins her around to the sound of hundreds of cheering fans. What a moment.

As my mother-in-law would say, "I want to *snug* him!" The affection that I have for J-Ax is very similar to what I felt for Jesse in Breaking Bad. I wrote about his redemption in a blog post after the series finale last year. Even if guys like these look a little scary, they are still human beings made in the image and likeness of God, yo. It's really important to keep this in mind. As Pope Francis said,
The more the [Christian] mission calls you to go out to the margins of existence, let your heart be the more closely united to Christ’s heart, full of mercy and love. Herein lies the secret of pastoral fruitfulness, of the fruitfulness of a disciple of the Lord!
Of course the best part about this is how Sister Cristina explains herself to the crowd and the judges. Why is she there? Because she has a gift and she wants to share it with the world; because Pope Francis calls us to evangelize, reminding us that "God doesn't take anything away from us but will give us more." J-Ax totally abandons his "dude" persona and cries openly at that. The blonde woman says, "I am so moved." I hope you are, too.

J-Ax tells Cristina that she is holy water to his devil (maybe the one on his throat?). I don't know about you but I will be praying for that guy as long as he is working with her through the coming weeks of this competition. So much can happen in that time. Here are a few things that they might learn about each other: Sister Cristina only began practicing her faith in 2008. Ten years before that, J-Ax won a major award for his rapping and also published his autobiography, "I Thought of No One." Presumably, this is about how he rose to fame by looking out for numero uno. How fitting that the songappropriated by Sister Cristina as a love song to Christshould be called "No One." What else will they talk about? Will the seed that was planted in J-Ax that night take root? Will he water it regularly? Will he stop flashing devil horns with his hands and start attending all the functions??

All things are possible for God.

If you liked this, check out my last post, "The Lament of Eustace Scrubb and the Sacrament of Penance", which handles many of the same themes (music, conversion, grace, etc.). 

And while you're praying for J-Ax (his real name is Alessandro), throw in an intention for the 24,000,000+ people all over the world who were able to experience this beautiful moment through the internet. Way to be, internet.

Update: Here is Elizabeth Scalia's First Things post which treats this topic. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Lament of Eustace Scrubb and the Sacrament of Penance

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I will attempt to supplement your imagination with a new set of ideas, images, and sounds related to this dear patron of Ireland, the "keeper of Purgatory."


 After reading my Mumford & Sons post, a friend of mine recommended a new band to me called The Oh Hellos. It took me a while but I finally listened to their first album on YouTube. They sound like a mixture of The Head and the Heart, Of Monsters and Men, and The Lumineers. I really enjoyed the whole thing, but the song that stood out from the others is the one titled, "The Lament of Eustace Scrubb." I knew C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia from my childhood and I had the opportunity to study them as an adult in college. So right away I recognized that the song was about the wretched little boy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader who turned into a dragon. Do yourself a favor and listen to the song. It has a very Celtic feel to it, perfect for St. Patrick's Day. (Here's a link if you need it.) If you feel compelled to dance, by all means...

     Brother, forgive me:
     we both know I'm the one to blame.
     When I saw my demons
     I knew them well and welcomed them;
     but I'll come around, someday.

     Father, have mercy:
     I know that I have gone astray.
     When I saw my reflection
     it was a stranger beneath my face;
     but I'll come around, someday.

     When I touch the water
     they tell me I could be set free.
     So I'll come around, someday.

Wipe that dancing sweat from your brow and let's talk about what just happened. What do you feel? Were you surprised when the song took such a dramatic turn? Surprised by.... joy, perhaps? Why did that happen in the midst of such mournfulness? Here's my interpretation: I think you just experienced the musical version of the Sacrament of Penance, or Confession. The songs begins slowly and sadly, the subject lamenting a sin that he has committed against his neighbor. He acknowledges the fault, sending up his mea culpa. He addresses God the Father, asks for mercy. What happens next is not illustrated in words, but rather in music. But the title directs the listener to a brilliant image to aid our understanding of what is happening: Aslan, the mighty lion, tearing the scales off the boy-turned-dragon, Eustace Scrubb.

This saga is captured by two chapters in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The beastly boy, in order to shirk work, breaks off from his cousins and the rest of the crew and discovers a dragon's cave full of treasure. (The set up is so similar to what happens when Edmund does the same sort of thing in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe that we know something bad is coming.) Greedily, Eustace stuffs his pockets and covers himself with loot to the point of exhaustion. When awakens, he sees his reflection in a pool of water and discovers that he has become a dragon. The "Lament" goes: "When I saw my reflection, it was a stranger beneath my face." The rest of the chapter provides the full content to what the Oh Hellos mean by, "I'll come around someday," as Eustace struggles to cope with being a dragon and longs to be changed back. In the next chapter, Eustace tells his cousin Edmund about how he stopped being one. Aslan, King of Narnia, had come to him, and told him to undress. Eustace realizes that he means to shed his skin much like a snake does. So he scratches and scratches as scales fall to the ground, but it is not good enough:
   "Then the lion saidbut I don't know if it spoke'You will have to let me undress you.' I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of felling the stuff peel off. You knowif you've ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like a billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away."
   "I know exactly what you mean," said Edmund.
C.S. Lewis looking as if he just listened to The Oh Hellos.
 Allow me a brief digression here as we come upon one of my most cherished gems of spiritual formation, which came from C.S. Lewis. The last chapter of Mere Christianity is titled "The New Men." I've read it or listened to it at least a dozen times and I made my Apologetics students experience it, too, because it is one of my favorite things. It is about becoming holy, and Lewis says simply and surprisingly, "it must be fun." That is what is happening when we are stripped and purged of our baggage and our dead skin. We are being sanctified, and it is such fun.

Back to the song: none of this text is featured in the lyrics, but the music brings it to life most delightfully. The fiddle scratches like he lion's claws, the drum pounds like the child's heart, hands clap as if to cheer on the dazzling dance of transformation. It is loud and intense. It burns with pain but also pleasure. It is, to use Eustace's word, fun. As the music slows back down, the lyrics pick up and end with the next scene:
"Then he caught hold of meI didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin onand threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious. [...] I'd turned into a boy again."

But the perspective has changed in the song. By the end, it is not the dragon talking ("When I touch the water they tell me I can be set free"), for he has undergone the cleansing of these baptismal waters and as such is being held up to the singer and to the listener as an example to follow, so that we, too, can be set free. But then he says that he'll "come around someday." To that I say, get thee to a priest, my friend! You can "come around" before the sun goes down. Here's how I discovered that beautiful truth...

After about ten years of sinning since my First Reconciliation, I accidentally found myself in a Confessional. A new acquaintance of mine had invited me to attend a Latin Mass. I had no idea what that meant but I felt sure that it involved a mariachi band. Undaunted, the guy picked me up at the Newman Center and brought me to this mystical place. We got there early because he was in the choir, so I meandered around the back and ran my eyes over the pamphlets and such that were lying about. Then I noticed a long line of people who appeared to be waiting for something. 'Why would all of these people have to go to the bathroom now before this thing has even started? Why didn't they just go at home? Why are they reading instead of chatting to one another?' Total confusion. As I continued to ponder the line (after ruling out the idea that the box at the front of it was a concession stand), an elderly lady asked me, "Do you need to go to Confession, sweetie?" She handed me a folded piece of paper that had a really detailed and scathing examination of conscience on it. Without really thinking I took it from her and placed myself at the back of the line where I read the list. Staring down at it was like looking into a pool of mucky water. I had done many of the things on that list, and I knew on some level that my soul was so spattered in sludge that the image of God within me had been obscured. I saw my demons. I knew them well. Over the course of a decade, I had become a dragon.

When I finally went inside the little door and faced the wooden screen, I could not think of how to begin. "Um... well... I've done a lot of things from this list." The priest patiently led me through the process. Uttering each sin (which I basically had lumped into categories for the sake of the many people in line behind me), I felt just as Eustace felt as he picked and scratched at his scales. The experience was painful, but goodexhilarating, even. Eventually, the priest told me that I really needed basic formation and that I should go find the Baltimore Catechism. I actually thought that he was telling me to go to Baltimore (I could take the train during Thanksgiving break) and search for a thing (maybe like an obelisk?) called a catechism. Thankfully, that level of ignorance didn't invalidate the absolution. The words were in Latin, but I knew what they meantwhat they were doing to me. It was the priest, in persona Aslan (if you will), clawing away at my remaining dragon-ness and transforming me into a Daughter of Eve. The next step, my penance, completed the process, and I became a Daughter of God in a state of grace (however brief). From that moment on, I was determined  to belong to Him. My Second Reconciliation was also a Second Spring.

As I think about this experience in tandem with my love of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (which my husband and I are reading to our son this Lenthe is dressed in a lion costume in his bed as I type this), I'm struck by how similar the confessional is to that magical wardrobe. As one steps inside either of them, he or she embarks on an incredible adventure in which obstacles are overcome, the King is encountered, the self is transformed. Then, when one steps outside, it seems as if no time has passed at all.

In the Sacrament of Penance, we are washed of our iniquities and cleansed of our sins. It recovers lost baptismal grace and continues the transformation that is both—somehow—complete and yet only incipient when we are baptized. This process is usually only finished after death, and that is why there is Purgatory. I became fascinated with this in college. In one semester of my self-designed Catholic Studies major I managed to choose the topic of Purgatory in four different subjects so that I could study it from four different angles at the same time. In one of the classes I had been studying Hamlet when I came across a footnote in the Arden Edition which explained a bit of dialogue that had long puzzled me. Hamlet, having just had an audience with his father's ghost, is flummoxed and enraged, jabbering incoherently: 
HORATIO: Those are but wild and whirling words, my lord.
HAMLET: I'm sorry they offend you, heartily; yes, 'faith, heartily.
HORATIO: There is no offense, my lord.
HAMLET: Yes, by St. Patrick, there is, Horatio. And much offense, too.
Why St. Patrick? The note said he is traditionally the "keeper of Purgatory." The story goes that in Patrick's day the faithful would make a pilgrimage to Lough Derg in Ireland where the saint would lead them to the mouth of a cave where they would have a vision of their sin-riddled souls as God saw them. In that moment of horror, they would experience a purgatory on earth in the hope of being spared of the torments that otherwise awaited them. So, as I claimed in my term paper, the reason for his offense in the context of the ghost scene is that Hamlet had not been praying for the repose of his father's soul. (I develop this idea quite a lot and my thesis is in keeping with the ideas put forward by Clare Asquith in her amazing book, Shadowplay, but that's all I want to say about it for this post.) Then in my Medieval Art class, I gave a presentation on iconographic representations of Purgatory and included the great image of St. Patrick below.

Several months after All Soul's Day in November, St. Patrick's Day can serve as a joyous reminder to pray for the holy souls in Purgatory, to go to Confession at least once during Lent, and heartily to celebrate the agony and the ecstasy of repentance and renewal. Now go back and listen to that song againimagine C.S. Lewis (who was born and raised in Ireland, after all) clapping to the beatand take St. Patrick's blessing along with you. Have fun!

If you, as did I for several years, want to know why on earth Lewis never became Catholic, I highly recommend Joseph Pearce's satisfying book, C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church. If you'd like to watch an excellent lecture that Pearce gave on the same subject, just click here.

And if you enoyed the sound of "The Lament of Eustace Scrubb," try another Oh Hellos song, "Like the Dawn", which is about Adam and Eve. It's a little slower, highlights the girl's voice over the guy's, and it's simply gorgeous.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My Thing with Owls: A Meditation on Divine Providence

So I've had this . . . problem. For the last six months, I've seen about 5+ owls per day in the form of graphics, illustrations, stuffed animals, real owls, and more. I know owls are having a moment in our culture right now (my husband sent me this article about it), but they've had a particularly deep significance for me. It started in the early fall last year when my husband first started to apply for jobs which would launch his career after this his final year of grad school. Whenever I'm on the cusp of some major life change, I start to look for signs of God's Will so that I know which way to go. The reason I do this is because is it what I became accustomed to in my new life which began after my reversion in 2003. It felt like a personal bargain that God and I had struck when I committed myself to His service: I'll work for You if You make things easy and peaceful and fun. Deal. So for the first decade of my life of faith, God was always raining consolations upon me. I have dozens of stories of His Providence arriving clearly and boldly just in the nick of time. If I wrote them all down, you would surely say it was all made up (I shared one of them in the epilogue of my Groundhog Day post). I felt very blessed to have God so clearly on my team at all times.

Thus, when I started noticing owl paraphernalia everywhere, I immediately tried to figure out what it meant. One day when I took my kids to the zoo, my 4-year-old decided that he wanted to see the owl first and I was surprised because the thing has never, ever been awake in the hundred or so times we've gone to that zoo. "Yeeeeeah, owls are nocTURnal," my son would explain to the disappointed on-looking children who were hooting at it to try to wake it up. But this time, we went straight to the owl and its eyes were wide open, staring at me. I was so struck by this that I got as close as I'll ever get to the Inferno's circle of diviners and leaned in to ask the owl, "What do you want? What am I to do?" That was pretty confusing to my kids, as you can imagine. It didn't talk to me, but when I was home that evening doing a little research on the universities to which my husband had applied I discovered that the mascot of one of the places is an owl. All at once I was convinced that that is where we are going and that God is trying to prepare me in His gentle and weird way becausewowI really don't want to go there.

Let me give you a little taste of what this time has been like with a synopsis of one day-in-the-life-of-a-crazy-person: I woke up in the morning and went to the kitchen to prepare the baby's oatmeal and applesauce and pulled out a jar with this on it:

Then, I found the Winnie-the-Pooh book open on the floor of the nursery with this page open:
Next, I drove my son to school and the back of the car in front of me had this decal:

Then I took the baby for his well-check at the pediatrician and the bin of stickers at reception is filled with hundreds of Sponge Bob and Scooby Doo stickers which are facing down and the one sticker on top facing up is this:

Went home, put the baby down for his nap, and the thing at the very top of my Facebook feed was this:

 I pick up my son from school and he shows me that the only art work he did all day was this:

Finally I went out in the evening to meet a friend at Barnes and Noble and adjacent to her head was this:
All in just one day, people. Wouldn't you be freaking out?! It got to the point where I needed some form of spiritual direction for this thing. A friend of mine who is much like a mentor to me found the whole conspiracy really odd and told me, "You've got to mortify that. Next time you see an owl, you tell yourself, 'That is just an owl. Nothing more.'" I recalled a talk that she had given about a year earlier in which she said something so important that I rummaged through my purse in order to write it down on a receipt: "If you have to see the Will of God to be able to do it, you're going to get stuck." This had been a new step in my understanding of what faith really is: believing without seeing.

The next day when I continued to see owls everywhere I looked, I averted my eyes and said, "No, owl," or "Get behind me, owl!" or something even more dramatic than that. My husband and I knew that the university with the owl mascot would be getting back to us very soon and it became harder and harder to suppress the owl-sighting/God-signpost connection in my mind. Then the day came when I took the baby to have his flu shot and we were led to nurse's room that was completely devoid of decoration except for a child's coloring page of a cartoon owl winking. I laughed at it in a nervous way and the nurse looked puzzled (welcome to my world, nurse). And when I got home, what was in the mail but the rejection letter from the place with the owl mascot. I thought of the winking owl, and I thought of George Costanza shouting at his friends in the dark movie theater: "I know you're there! Laughing. . . laughing and lying!"

I was starting to "vein it up" a little bit when I called my (honorary) godfather who is a priest and was my mentor in college. I love this man. He knows me so well and knew exactly what I needed. He took very seriously what my husband affectionately called "the crazy" and started brainstorming about owls in literature and poetry and all of it. Of course we all know that they represent wisdom, but he knew of a specific reference to them in philosophy. He told me about the preface to Hegel's Philosophy of Right which ends with this:    
Only one word more concerning the desire to teach the world what it ought to be. For such a purpose philosophy at least always comes too late. Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering. [emphasis mine]
 My godfather picked the pearl out of this point. Hegel argues that it is only possible to understand an epoch, or even one's own life, as it comes to an end given the benefit of hindsight. It's not for us fully to comprehend what is going on around us. Clarity only comes with time. The priest added, "with the end of time." That's why it's enough to just be in the present and trust in God's providence.

I had an epiphany and immediately thought back to one of the most formative books in my reversion, Jean-Pierre de Caussade's Abandonment to Divine Providence. Have you read this remarkable book? In it, Caussade talks about the "sacrament of the present moment," and he tells his reader to
"carry on as you are doing and endure what you have to dobut change your attitude to all these things. And this change is simply to say 'I will' to all that God asks."

It is ideal spiritual reading for Lent. I read it on a plane headed towards Rome for a spring break pilgrimage after the guy that I really liked (and later married) told me the night before we left, "We can't be romantic in Rome." (Isn't that an oxymoron?!) I knew I needed the Church's big guns to get me through that confusion. That book gave me a beautiful education in how to trust in God and how to live fully in the present moment. It was a game-changer for me, and ever since I've recommended it to people who feel like they're in the "dark wood." But all too often, those lessons fall behind the desk of my mind and get covered in dust. My godfather's counsel recovered them, polished them up, and set them on display at the forefront of my thoughts. He helped me to see that Divine Providence is not limited to our experience of happy coincidences and silver linings. Even the bad things that happen are part of His Providence because He allowed it for the sake of some greater good. I really do believe this with all my being. I remembered that incredible quote from Mother Theresa who was once asked, "How do you know God's Will?" and she replied, "It's whatever happens." And this winter my book club is reading Alessandro Manzoni's classic novel (not to mention Pope Francis's favorite book), The Betrothed, which includes this line from a nobleman to Fr. Cristoforo: "Everything that happens is the will of God."

I know I'm guilty of thinking that only the good things come from God and saying, "That was Providential," when I retell those stories that turned out well in the end. But my dear friend helped me to understand that even my miscarriage was providential—so too my mom's detached retina and our friend's heart-wrenching string of tragedies last year. It's not like God fell asleep at the wheel when that stuff happened. Sufferingparticularly redemptive sufferingis certainly part of His plan, too. (Huffington Post recently had an article on this theme.) And He knew about all of it from the foundation of the world. And for Him who is outside of time, all of Salvation History has already happenedcomplete, perfect, made whole.

I recalled that this was the same priest who once gave a homily with the best image I can think of for this amazing reality: a Medieval tapestry which tells the story of the Pascal Mystery from Genesis to Revelation. God views the tapestry from the front, beholding the drama in its final ideal form, but we who are still in time see only the backside of it. We see all of the random threads of color zigzagging about and the knots and loops and other tricks of the weaving trade that make possible the perfect image on the face side. I used to tell my students about this when I taught high school theology. What a gift to see their eyes shine and their hearts skip a beat in just the way that mine did when I first heard this good news.

The last little gem of insight that my godfather left me with in that phone conversation was a consideration of an exchange from the final scene in Dostoevsky's The Brother's Karamazov:
"Karamazov!" cried Kolya, "can it really be true as religion says, that we shall all rise from the dead, and come to life, and see one another again, and everyone, and Ilyushechka?" "Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been," Alyosha replied, half laughing, half in ecstasy.
This is what the New Heaven will be like after the end of the world. Those who've loved God and one another will gather together at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb and share our stories, delighting in the ways in which our lives have intersected just as we do when we're at a big Catholic wedding like the one I went to last month: "How did you come to know the bride? When did you meet the groom?" But this final time which will never end, the Bride will be the Church in all of her billion faces, and the Groom will be the Christ who laid down His life for her. And we'll all be united forever in the joy of God's Providence, half-laughing, fully in ecstasy.

I'm happy to report that that is what I think of now whenever I see an owl. It happened to me four times today including this evening when I sat down to write this post. I was babysitting for a friend and there was a pile of children's library books near the computer. At the very top was a paperback called, Owls in the FamilyHa, I thought. Well they are now. And I embrace them as little reminders that I can't count on seeing God's action in my life on a daily basis. "It ain't over 'til it's over," as the song goes. And my faith assures me, in the wonderful words of Julian of Norwich: "All will be well. All will be well. All manner of things will be well."

So much of our spiritual discipline should be about refreshing our own memories for the sake of the good lessons and insights that we've gleaned in the past. Like with a foreign language, if you don't use it, you lose it. I already knew Abandonment to Divine Providence and had told my students about the tapestry image years before my schizophrenic owl meltdown. But I forgot, and I let Screwtape have his way with my weakness for comfort and assurances and avoidance of suffering. This Lent, I will be working against that, meditating on this nugget of goodness that I found in an online bestiary page about owl symbolism:
Christianity saw in the owl a symbol of Christ, who came to those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death (Luke 1:79). This is the case with owls in pictures of the Passion. Early mystics believed the owl had a luminous substance in its eyes which dissolved the darkness, giving it excellent night vision. In the same way, the light of Christ was said to dissolve the darkness of this world and give a pure and good direction. The Christ-owl may be found with the cross on its breast or head.
In Le Livre des Symboles, the light or wisdom of the Holy Spirit is represented by the owl who brings light to the dark souls of unbelievers. The owl was used by the Greeks to symbolize wisdom and, as such, it is an attribute of St. Jerome. It is also representative of the wisdom found in solitary prayer and so appears in pictures of hermits. As wisdom, the owl is a symbol of meditation, retreat, or the scholar. As the scholar, it is often found perched on a scroll or book.
I bought this owl pendant to wear each day of Lent as my own little sacramental for keeping at the center of my thoughts God's mysterious yet boundless Providence. This is what true wisdom is all about, after all. May it please Him and may it do me good.

P.S. I also have a thing with peacocks, but that has less to do with Divine Providence and everything to do with Flannery O'Connora post for another time, perhaps.

Check out this lovely post from the blog, Mysteries and Manners, and this one from Fare Forward. Their messages dovetail nicely with mine.

Lastly, I want to share with you one more fruit of my owl encounters. Go to the homepage of musician Josh Garrels here. First of all, notice the owl graphic at the top which actually made me scream at the computer because it had just been too many times that day.

 Then go to Media tab and click Videos. You'll find an intriguing animated short set to his song "White Owl" (!!) which expresses sentiments quite close to the ones I discussed above. What are your thoughts? Help me to analyze it. Then, find the main thing that I want you to see/hear which is the performance of his song "Words Remain." It's hauntingly beautiful. And it, too, captures many of the insights about Divine Providence that I've recently gleaned and regleaned. It has been the soundtrack to this epoch of my life. Plus, there are plenty of owl-like sounds, and he might be wearing an owl shirt. Someone with the right connections, please help me to meet this guy. I love so much of his music, and I really think we could bond over this owl thing. Thanks in advance.

 Next topic: The Lament of Eustace Scrubb and the Sacrament of Penance.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Power of Gates Compels You? One Thing That Microsoft Can't Do

I'm interrupting the schedule of blogging topics that I have assigned myself for the next few months to say some things about Monday's Gospel and the Microsoft commercial that ran during the Super Bowl. A friend of mine who's a theology student sent me the ad suggesting that I write about it. He said, "[It is] one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen." In case you missed it, here it is (and in case it fails, here's a link):


My first thought is, wowall of that is true. We members of the human race have achieved amazing things through technology. All of those advances in medicine and science ended in new legs for that little boy and the new ears for that woman. There's no doubt about that, for their testimony is proof. But it's also true that way too many people have taken that fact and turned it into an idol. Christians (especially Catholics) know that faith and reason work togetherreligion and science can peacefully co-exist. Yet people today walk around clutching their iPhones (here's Jerry Seinfeld joking about that "juiced-up hard rectangle") in the way that people in the Middle Ages clutched their rosaries. The cart has gotten ahead of the horse in a big way.

So many of us are just like Kip from Napoleon Dynamite in our relationship with God: "Yes, I love technology, but not as much as you, you see; but I still love technology, always and forever." I experience this struggle every day when my baby goes down for his nap and I'm faced with the choice to engage in mental prayer for fifteen minutes as I plan and pledge to do or check my email, scroll through Facebook, or refresh my blog stats just for a sec. Screwtape has a blast.

Technology is a good, but it isn't the Good. It isn't an end in itself. Also, it doesn't do great things for us; people do great things for us with it. It's a tool, and our use of it makes us either better or worsebrings us closer to God and others or pushes us farther away. We have to struggle to keep this perspective when computers and phones and cameras are just so awesome right now. Everything that Steve Gleason says in the Microsoft ad (with the help of a computer) ought to be attributed to God, of course: "Technology has the power to unite us." ... "It inspires us."... "It gives hope to the hopeless." Without God granting us the gifts of His image and likeness, we would have never discovered all of the glorious truths of our universe through the power of our reasoning and intelligence. The ad features the lame walking, the blind seeing, the deaf hearingso many of the miracles performed by Jesus in the Gospels. It's clear that the capacities of human imagination and ingenuity are amazing and even mind-blowingly so. It's easy to think there's nothing we can't do, nothing we can't control, nothing we can't master. Professor Patrick Deneen described this in an article from The New Atlantis while discussing two transformations which mark modernity:
In the second transformation, natural phenomena were to be understood not as a subject of theoretical study — that is, the object of contemplation — but rather, were to be understood as material to be worked on, as a domain that could be altered and transformed through human knowledge and activity. Action upon nature was to become the main object of modern science, particularly as inaugurated by Francis Bacon. The truly practical sciences were now understood to be the natural sciences which would act upon nature, altering its original form to exist in conformity with human comfort — to provide for “the relief of man’s estate,” as Bacon put it.
Theology, however, remains otherwise. It searches above and beyond while it teaches us our limits and our finitude. As Hamlet says to Horatio, "There are more things in heaven and earth / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Here I want to focus on just one of those things—one of the invisible things in which was say we believe when we recite the Creed : demons. Let us consider demonic possession as one of the many things that technology simply cannot solve.

Exorcisms don't make it on the news too much. They're usually private affairs handled by the family of the victim and the local exorcist of their diocese. But our culture harbors a deep interest and even obsession with exorcisms, because like the "healed" people in the Microsoft ad, the afflicted victims and their witnesses have provided testimony. Every few years there appears another blockbuster all about this bizarre reality. I've never seen The Exorcist, but I have seen The Exorcism of Emily Rose and I think it is a really good and very important movie. At the very least, it depicts in vivid detail what possession really looks like, the priest is fantastic, and there's quite a surprising twist at the end. The movie explores the possible cause of Emily's transformation by pitting natural ones against supernatural ones in a courtroom drama setting. The most important piece of evidence is the audio recording of the exorcism itself (which used the tape from the real life events that inspired the movie). Ultimately it becomes clear that something supernatural is the cause, and only the supernatural can rescue the poor, tormented girl. 

I've heard plenty of homilies that have suggested that the possession and exorcism accounts in the Gospels are merely metaphors for sin and repentance or that these were all just physical or psychological disorders the people back then didn't understand. There might be some of that in a few of the accounts, but not this one:
And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” (Mark 9:14-29)

Take three minutes to watch this scene from Franco Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth. It's better than you remember, though it does leave out some of the important dialogue. In the Gospel passage, Jesus makes a distinction between types of demons, types of possession. Here he tells us that there is at least one kind against which science and technology are powerless. Only the power of Christ channeled through one of his ordained ministers will overcome this particular obstacle. Of course plenty of people simply reject this. They don't encounter the supernatural in their own lives, so it's easy not to believe in it. If you'd like to challenge your skepticism, I submit to you this story of demonic possession which came out at the end of last month. This ran in several regular news outlets. It's amazing and terrifying. Many reading this would still find it hard to believe. The events go far beyond what natural science can explain; their remedy is therefore beyond the scope of technology. 

Technology is an attractive good because it is also a good we can master. And this makes it easy to set aside and draw a box around the things that defy technological explanation and masteryincluding God. Even those of us who do believe have to be reminded every once in a while. Faith is something that must be nurtured if it is to flourish. The prayer of the father in the Gospel passage above is really a perfect one for all of us: "I believe! Help my unbelief." For years I've been repeating this phrase in my heart at the moment when the priest elevates the consecrated Eucharist in the Mass. It helps me to experience that moment with both wonder and humility.

Wonder is certainly one word that comes to mind when I watch that Microsoft ad. But my hope is that humility will also followthe humility to realize that the human genius that develops this technology is a gift from God; and the humility to appreciate the limitations of technological tools, which stop where the natural order ends and the supernatural begins. In our time, the means of reason and rhetoric are being highly challenged by media technology. But the Church offers technologies (if you will) of its own that use reason and rhetoric differently and that submit to different standards of evidence, belief, and proof. Exorcism is among the most dramatic examples of this. When faced with the problem of demonic possession, Microsoft's claim to be a Christ-like healer will prove hollow. "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer"prayer which calls the supernatural power of God into our midst.

If you want more information about exorcisms, check out the book An Exorcist Tells His Story by Fr. Gabriel Amorth. I have some mixed feelings about its value mostly because of Tolkien's warning to Lewis as he wrote The Screwtape Letters (a book that I find extremely valuable) that delving too deeply into the craft of evil would have consequences; but I know a few people whose faith was significantly strengthened by it. What are your thoughts?

Next topic: A meditation on Divine Providence for Lent.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Empathy as a Key to Romance: Help from the Four Temperaments

Ten years ago this month, my husband and I had our first date. We usually make a big deal out of it as our own personal version of Valentine's Day. It's our time to reflect on what we were thinking back then and try to pull up some of the lovely memories from our earliest days together and fold them into our current appreciation of one another. When I look back at all of the things that have contributed to peace, happiness, and romance in our shared life, next to sacramental grace stands out one glorious gift: reading The Temperament God Gave You. (Be sure to read the description.) The concepts in this book totally changed my life and made my home safe for democracy. I don't remember which lady in my Catholic Mom's Book Club suggested that we read it, but I owe her my next born child (who may not ever exist without the help from this book! Ha!! J/k...j/k.). I had picked up snippets about the temperaments from reading lots of Shakespeare but had never thought to take them seriously as keys to better understanding everyone I've ever met. It is like the Philosopher's Stone of relationships.

The Oracle at Delphi gave us the aphorism, "Know thyself." Jesus added to that when he said, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Since the Church is really skilled at taking the good stuff from paganism and making it even better, I am celebrating one of my favorite instances of that here. For my money, one of the best things that anyone can do to achieve these lofty goals is to get to know the four temperamentscholeric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmaticfirst described by the ancient physician Hippocrates and (once shorn of their association with the mistaken theory of the "four humors") just as relevant today. This is how the book works:  it teaches you to know yourself by offering a concise yet thorough primer on why you are the way you are. The more you know yourself, the more you can master yourself, the more you can give of yourself. It also teaches you to know your spouse better and helps you to build empathy for him or her. My husband and I have found the most impacting features to be the handy "Temperament Combinations in Marriage" chapter as well as the the very practical one titled, "How to Motivate Yourself and Others." By learning about the deeply rooted differences and similarities between yourself and your loved ones, you can make a lot of progress towards genuine empathy and greater love.

Here's a quick breakdown of the four (note: with the emoticons, it's important to know that one's temperament is most strongly expressed when he or she is under stress; begin at top right and move clockwise):

Choleric: (top right) Extraverted. Productive; zealous; pragmatic; intense; confrontational.
Melancholic: (bottom right) Introverted. Loves truth, justice, principles. Reflective; slow to react or initiate.
Phlegmatic: (bottom left) Introverted. Loves harmony, peace, cooperation.
Sanguine: (top left) Extraverted. Optimistic; interested; creative; adventurous; fun-loving.
*Click here for the temperament test from the back of the book.

Most people are a combination of two temperaments with one being dominant and the other secondary. Of course, there are many things which add further dimension to these bedrock tendencies. All of the nurtured features that overlay these natural inclinations must be taken into consideration. The book is very eager to assure that personality is distinct from temperament in that it is the collection of cultivated habits and life experiences which further define our uniqueness. The authors are not advocating that their reader attempt to reduce others to their temperaments, setting aside all of the nuances there to be appreciated. Instead, it provides contenta springboard, if you willfor better communication. For example, I am a choleric-sanguine married to a melancholic-phlegmatic. We're a classic case of "opposites attract." Because my husband first captured my attention by being the life of a party one night, I assumed that he was just as extraverted as I am; so I proceeded to book social engagements for us about 4-5 nights per week. I couldn't understand why he would start panting and groaning when he looked at the calendar. So, we had a lot of stress in this arena of newly-married life. We couldn't figure out a way to level with one another.

By contrast, take the example of melancholic Mr. Bates from last week's Downton Abbey. Sanguine-phlegmatic Anna is distressed that Bates is off by himself looking sullen and anxious. He tells her, "Your husband is a brooder, and brooders brood." She does not respond with, "Well, snap out of it," as a choleric might. Instead, she says, "Well brood on me, then." She accepts that this is his tendency and chooses to redirect it towards a more positive end.

If you invite me to your wedding, you're going to get this book. I know the cover is kind of meh (I put a pretty wrapping-paper cover on mine), but it is the best tool for marital harmony that I can possibly give to another couple. What ten years of loving my husband has taught me is that we're always happiest when we're taking the time and the energy to consider each other's distinct viewpointgenerally (remembering our temperaments) and specifically (appreciating the particularities of the given circumstance and observing carefully each other's language, verbal and otherwise). This is how empathy fans the fire of romance. Nothing tells me that I'm cherished by my husband like his accurate articulation of what I'm experiencing and his offer to share the yoke. I think about that as I look around at all of the couples at weddings. I like to imagine how they compare and contrast temperamentally. Here's a hilarious photo of some married friends of mine at a reception which reads as if it were a caricature:

I promise that this is not staged. Everything about it is perfect, from the colors of their clothes to the light fixture shadows behind them which seem to represent their respective capacities for this party. You just know this sanguine wife and melancholic husband complete one another in only the way that he and she can. Neither is daunted by the other; they appreciate their differences and do not begrudge one another for them. I give this book as a wedding present because I wish someone had done that for me. If I had known from the get-go that my husband is drained by socializing rather than energized (like I am), I could have spared us at least a dozen fights about "over-committing" and "being so lame." If I had known that nagging is the worst thing that I could do to inspire my husband to take out the trash every morning, I wouldn't have seethed through my coffee steam a thousand or so times. Choosing to say, "It makes such a difference in my day when you take out the trash on your way to work. Thank you so much *kiss*!" has been infinitely more productive than an exasperated, "How many times do I have to remind you to do this? Do I have to put it in your hand and open the door myself??" I now know that when he does not take out the trash, it's not a deliberate choice to make my life harder (my go-to choleric assumption about most things); rather, he's contemplating the next chapter of his dissertation or dreaming of a world without modern architecture. It's not what I would be thinking about as I crush a yogurt container under the lid of the trash can, but it is one of the things that I love about himhis ever-teeming mind.

One of my favorite scenes from Brideshead Revisited is when a very drunk Sebastian vomits into Charles's window and his fellow reveler attempts to explain the situation:
I trust that you will forgive my friend. The wines were too various. It was neither the quality nor the quantity that was at fault - it was the mixture. Grasp that and you have the very root of the matter. To understand all is to forgive all.
This is how God is with us. He is all-knowing and all-merciful. We are called to imitate that greatest empathy. Now that I have a clearer understanding of how my husband thinks, I more easily and happily give him the benefit of the doubt; which is no more than the courtesy that I give myself all the time. "Love thy neighbor as thyself." This is a mandate of our faith. And it is a burden made all the lighter when we realize that the unique temperament of our beloved is the very Will of God, and that God shares with us His Divine Spirit to keep our wedding vows a whole life long.


If you're interested in artistic representations of the four temperaments, you'll find countless paintings, sculptures, allegory plays, and even a ballet. If you want a musical interpretation, I highly recommend Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 2, Opus 16. Its movements and their respective temperament illustrated are as follows:
  1. Allegro collerico (Choleric)
  2. Allegro comodo e flemmatico (Phlegmatic)
  3. Andante malincolico (Melancholic)
  4. Allegro sanguineo — Marziale (Sanguine)

 This Valentine's Day, have fun listening with your spouse and noticing all of the musical features which best represent your temperaments. Do you hear all of that thunder and lightning in the first movement? Yeah, that would be me. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Good Clean Fun: The Theology of the Body in "Groundhog Day"

The movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell turns 21 this year, and I wish I could take it out for a drink ("Sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist, please."). I feel as if I've seen this movie about as many times as Phil Connors lived that day. In college, my roommate and I decided to drive to the tiny hamlet of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the real thing. (Warning: the movie bears very little resemblance to the phenomenon that is a thousand screaming drunk people in utter darkness. Learned that the hard way.) After spending the night in a car and freezing for two hours just waiting for a shuttle bus, the highlight of the day was buying a DVD copy of Groundhog Day in the town itself and then driving all the way back to our warm and cozy apartment to watch it. I have high standards for movies, and I confidently declare that this one is the best movies made in my lifetime. Its universal appeal will ensure that it stands the test of time. And what I aim to show here is that the movie's universal appeal is such because it is rooted in what Blessed John Paul II called the Theology of the Body (TOB).

I came to know TOB in ways probably similar to many of you. I read some Christopher West in college. I've attended TOB lecture series and conference talks. I've done a few small group discussions over it with friends. I used it whenever I could when I taught high school theology. Then to prepare for this post, I read Michael Waldstein's impressive and scholarly introduction to the work and finally mined the magnum opus itself for some choice quotes. But even after all of that, I think the best thing I can offer you is the flavah of the ideas as consciously digested and understood by me and less-consciously so by the people who made Groundhog Day. Still, in order to fix the discussion on a couple of key ideas, I will focus on two important fragments from the TOB (General Audience 32:4,6):
4....[A]s a person, "man is the only creature on earth that God willed for itself" and at the same time the one who "cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self" (Gaudium et Spes, 24:3). Concupiscence in generaland the concupiscence of the body in particularattacks precisely this "sincere gift": it deprives man, one could say, of the dignity of the gift, which is expressed by his body through femininity and masculinity, and in some sense "depersonalizes" man, making him an object "for the other." Instead of being "together with the other"subject in unity, or better, in the sacramental "unity of the body"man becomes an object for man, the female for the male and vice versa" [...] 6. "Concupiscence brings with it the loss of the interior freedom of the gift. The spousal meaning of the body in linked exactly to this freedom. Man can become a giftthat is, man and woman can exist in the relationship of the reciprocal gift of selfif each of them masters himself. Concupiscence, which manifests itself as a "constraint 'sui generis' of the body," limits and restricts self-mastery from within, and thereby in some sense makes the interior freedom of the gift impossible.
Summed up in one sentence, JPII is saying that the man who is ruled by concupiscence (which is the desire to possess something as an object to be exploited) cannot freely give of himself in love until he first mortifies those desires. For my purposes, that man is Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors (Murray). The story functions as a philosophical thought experiment: what if you woke up every day and discovered it was yesterday? For Phil, that day is February 2nd, Groundhog Day. When we first meet him he is an arrogant, cynical, prima donna. He is a man driven by concupiscent desires. He is fixated on the idea of landing a bigger network and deeply resentful of the fact that he has to cover the groundhog festival in Punxsutawney for the fourth year in a row.  An attractive, vivacious new producer, Rita (MacDowell) has just joined the news team and she immediately catches Phil's eye while playing with the studio's green screen just like a happy child might. Another weatherman tells Phil that she'll be accompanying him on the trip to Punxsutawney and says, "She really nice. You two are going to have a lot of fun." Even though we viewers see Phil's face soften when first sees Rita, he replies, "Mmmhmm. She's fun. But not my kind of fun." His comments and actions suggest that his preferred fun is of a selfish kind. When he says Rita is not his kind of fun, he means that her innocent joyfulness is not sexyor at least it doesn't promise the gratification of sexual desire. He's saying that she does not arouse his lust because and thus is not easily objectified for his pleasure.

Phil lives for comfort and status. Throughout the story, those desires are mortified in many different ways so that higher desires can take their place. Even before the main trick of the narrative begins, a seemingly providential transformation of Phil's life is foreshadowed in several scenes in which Phil behaves arrogantly and then is humbled by some apparently random bodily discomfort. After predicting that there would be no blizzard, he gets out of the car with no coat on and shouts, "I make the weather!" at the police officer who is closing the road. He trembles and chatters with cold, a fitting refutation of his self-absorbed claim. Shortly after that, he requests a special phone line for "celebrities" and is hit in the head with a snow shovel. That night, after saying that he'll spend his night taking a hot shower and reading Hustler, the faucet douses him in icy water. Following this pattern, the time warp functions as another example of divine justice, as if God is saying, "No. You're doing it wrong. Try again."

Just as one might expect, the first recurrence of Groundhog Day is just plain weird for Phil. He has no idea what is going on. He asks Rita for a good hard slap on the face and she happily obliges him. He also pops an aspirin. He initially thinks that stimulating his flesh will fix the problem, then he tries numbing it. The following time, he asks Rita for help, and after she expresses her annoyance, he seeks medical, then psychological evaluation. With no answers to be found there, he turns to bowling and boozing with a couple of locals. He shares with them what is happening to him, and remembers his best day ever:
I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank piña coladas. At sunset we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn't I get that day over and over and over?
He soon realizes that he can have a day like this if he just puts his mind to it. So, he pursues a veritable feast for the flesh with no strings attached. The next day at the diner, he gorges himself on pastries, drinks coffee straight from the carafe, and smokes cigarettes. Rita, watching in disgust, leans in and recites to him part of a poem by Sir Walter Scott:
The wretch, concentred all in self, 
Living, shall forfeit fair renown, 
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.
How perfectly apt for Phil in this moment. Still too pleasure driven to even hear her, he laughs and moves right along with his self-indulgent day, transitioning from food to sex. On his way out of the diner, he collects some biographical information from a very attractive young woman named Nancy so that he can use it to woo her the next day. His plan works perfectly and he is able to have a Virgin Islands-esque romp with her, but in the course of it he reveals that he is fantasizing about Ritathe childlike, good womanin the midst of it. The next day, he robs a bank truck and spends the money on a fancy car, a Clint Eastwood costume, and manages to trick a woman into dressing up as French maid. Phil is certainly having his "kind of fun." But what's interesting here is that he is not satisfied with replaying versions of this over and over. He knows that he could have his way with Nancy or the French maid every day; but he realizes that what he really wants is Rita.

He asks her what she is looking for in a man, hoping to exploit the information and use her in the same way that he used Nancy. She tells him she what everybody wants: "career, love, marriage, children." John Paul II would smile and nod at this. Then Rita gives her list of desired attributes:
 First of all, he's too humble to know he's perfect. He's intelligent, supportive, funny. He's romantic and courageous. He's got a good body but doesn't have to look in the mirror every two minutes. He's kind, sensitive and gentle. He's not afraid to cry in front of me. He likes animals and children, and he'll change poopy diapers. And he plays an instrument and he loves his mother.
What she has described is a man of virtuea man is who is striving in self-mastery and therefore has the freedom of authentic self-gift in the way that TOB prescribes. Phil doesn't realize this in the beginning. Instead he views it more as a cheat sheet to getting her into bed. He orchestrates a perfect day for the two of them, and they have many delightful moments. At one point, they build a snowman together, an act that symbolizes the creative power of love in the rendering of another human being. They even talk about childhood and children. Phil says, "I haven't done this since I was a kid." Rita: "Me neither. It's fun!" Phil: "Yeahgood clean fun." He knows this is her kind of fun, and adds that he hopes to do this someday with his own children. At this point, he is doing and saying what he knows she wants to see and hear.  He is not acting genuinely and he's not giving of himself. He taking advantage of her and objectifying her for his own pleasure. I think it's fair to point out that Phil really doesn't know any better. He believes that Rita is good and he wants her goodness somehow, but he is so absorbed in himself that he can't conceive of offering himself in order to receive her. Rita certainly feels drawn to Phil, but she is firm about not wanting to "spoil it"  by making their relationship sexual too soon. Phil thinks that sex is the ultimate goal of the relationship and he fears that all he has is that one day, so he is determined to figure out the exact formula of words and actions that will land her in his bed. But no matter what he does, each day he winds up seriously offending her as expressed in a hilarious sequence of face-slaps. By the end of it, Phil is angry, bitter, and depressed. He hisses a kind of curse at Rita: "I'll give you a predictionit's gonna be cold, it's gonna be gray, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life." Then, he snaps like a crazy man, kidnaps the groundhog whom he has decided to blame for his ill-fate, and kills the two of them by driving a truck off a cliff. After that comes the despair sequence, in which he commits suicide in just about every way he can fathom day after day. This is the ultimate irresponsible act against his body. He may be imagining it as a kind of mortification, and it may function that way in the story; but it is certainly not the answer to his fundamental desires.

Phil simply does not understand what it takes to be a good man for such a good woman. Because he is a human being made in the image and likeness of God like we all are, he intuits what he wants and what he is but gets lost in the articulation of those things. He needs a guide. After many attempts at self-slaughter, he decides to tell Rita exactly what is happening to him. He starts by saying that he is a god. She replies, "You're not a god. Trust me. This is twelve years of Catholic school talking." This gives us a clue as to what Phil lacks and what he so badly needsa bit of remedial and illuminative theological education. Deep down he understands this, and at the end of the full-disclosure day, he confesses his feelings and desires to Rita as she sleeps: 
 What I wanted to say was I think you're the kindest, sweetest, prettiest person I've ever met in my life. I've never known anyone who is nicer to people than you are. The first time I saw you... something happened to me. I never told you but... I knew that I wanted to hold you as hard as I could. I don't deserve someone like you. But if I ever could, I swear I would love you... for the rest of my life.
And so begins Phil's education as illustrated by a very enjoyable self-improvement sequence. He reads voraciously, learns to play the piano and ice sculpt, and performs random acts of kindness around town. All of this mortifies his concupiscent urges. It also schools him in virtue so that he begins to live well, which as he discovers, means living for othersserving others through beauty and good deeds. His self-mastery affords him the freedom to choose the good, and finally, to give of himself. 

Rita's idea of fun"good clean fun"has become Phil's own. He begins a February 2nd cheerfully and warmly as he quotes Chekov and delivers a beautiful speech about winter to the Gobbler's Knob crowd and the viewing news audience. Instead of treating himself, he brings breakfast for his co-workers and carries their heavy bags. Rita is so intrigued by this that she asks him to spend time with her, but he has a list of "errands" to perform, all of which involve him spending his body for the sake of others: jacking up a car to change a flat tire, catching a boy falling from a tree, and performing the Heimlich on a choking man. At the groundhog party that night, all of these good deeds gather around to praise him like a Medieval allegory play. The beneficiaries of his kindness parade before him to express their gratitude as he dances with Rita. She begins to see that this man is the kind of man she is looking for. At the bachelor auction, which benefits a local charity, Rita unnecessarily cleans out her bank account to bid on Phil as a grand gesture of her wonder at him. To thank her, Phil perfectly sculpts her face in ice, again spending his body to serve her through beauty. Her body, symbolically in his hands, is not a tool of his pleasure but rather a gift that he offers back to her as an icon of his admiration. He tells her that he loves her, and this time there is no face slap, because he has shown her that this is true, and due to his strength of character, she is right glad of it.

Now here is where the movie takes a Hollywood turn instead of a TOB one: 6:00am arrives again, and this time, "something is different"Rita is in bed next to Phil (JPII face-palm). The movie could have been totally perfect had he awoken to the next day, got down on his knees and thanked God like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Day, and then run through the winter wonderland and into Rita's arms. But I'll take what I can get. The main point is still very well expressed. In his joy at waking up in tomorrow instead of yesterday, Phil turns to Rita and says, "Is there anything... that I can do for you...today?" The man of concupiscence, through self-mastery and self-gift, has found true love; and we have every reason to expect that it will find its full expression in spousal love soon thereafter. 

If you're interested in a study guide for Theology of the Body, I highly recommend Men & Women Are From Eden by Mary Healy. And here is some information on how the groundhog relates to the Christian feast of Candlemas.


EPILOGUE: To add another layer to this treatment of TOB and  Groundhog Day, I'll share a personal anecdote that fits remarkably well and contributes to my strong identification with the movie. I went through a really rough time in high school when I was miserably lonely but was starting to get a lot of attention from strangers. I was lured into the world of modeling after being given the impression that I had a really good chance of "making it" as long as my unusually tall frame reached a dangerously low weight. So, I began the work of pretty severe anorexia. I was so so bad to my body. There was a point when I was eating about 300 calories per day (disguising this from friends and family) and felt triumphant every time the sun went down. I got that thin, went to a crazy-horrible modeling expo, andthank Godran away screaming. But the lingering effect of the eating disorder was that I lost my menstrual cycle for nearly three years. All my life I wanted to be a mom, but the idea became so distant in that difficult time. Yet when a stranger in the ladies' room would ask me if I had any spare supplies, I would cry. Didn't have them, didn't need them. I was pretty sure that I had wrecked my chances of having kids, but I was still so wrapped up in warped thinking that I didn't take any practical steps towards correcting this self-inflicted tragedy. Until...

Shortly after I arrived at college, I had a major reversion to Catholicism. I knew very little of the Church's teaching but I became enraptured with every bit of it once I fell in love with the Mystical Body of Christ. I attended all the Masses and talks at the Newman Center that I could fit between my classes. One evening, I saw that there was a lecture on the Theology of the Body (had never heard of such a thing) and I just showed up. I knew that I had a really bad relationship with my body and I knew that I was suddenly really into theology. I was totally unprepared for what I heard that night from a lovely young Catholic couple who cheerfully and confidently articulated everything that I had never dared hope for in this fleshly life. I learned that my body was not mine (which was a relief because if my body had been my kid, Social Services would have taken her away from me) and that I owed tremendous gratitude to my Creator who loved me unconditionally. I learned about the incredible awesomeness of the Incarnation and the ways in which we can connect to God spiritually with the help of our bodies. I also learned about love between married people as self-gift and self-sacrifice. I felt an unidentified yearning well up inside me, whispering fiat to the Truth spoken that night. During the break, I was a mess of emotionburning within me was both intense desire and profound regret. Now that I knew what my body was for, I was prepared to live differentlyto treat my flesh differently. But was it too late? Was I already doomed to wake up to another Sonny & Cher 6:00am barren wasteland for the rest of my life? even though I had finally realized what my body was and what it meant? when at last I had the tools to be responsible enough to care for myself and perhaps even... someone else??

No. Our God is a God of mercy. To my shock and delight (and I apologize if your TMI-o-meter goes off here), my period returned during the Theology of the Body talk at the Newman Center after three years of nothing. The other girls in the stalls couldn't fathom my joyous laughter. I was so grateful, so happy to have the chance to give life (when the time came, of course)life which all at once seemed so worth living. I was Phil Connors of February 3rd that day, full of wonder and gratitude. I've tried to stay that way ever since.

Here's a lovely little bit of news from the Oscars related to this topic.