“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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The King of the Birds and the Queen of the Universe


Today is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the day we remember that the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us. It is also the day on which Flannery O'Connor, the great Southern Catholic writer, was born 90 years ago. Thus, it's a great day to dust off your copy of Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose and read her essay, "The King of the Birds." It seems like it's about peacocks, but I think it's about the Incarnation.

Simply put, Flannery O'Connor was utterly captivated by the sight of a peacock. Awestruck, mystified, delighted, she chose to raise them in the dozens on her farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. At one point, she had forty (a very theologically rich number). Just imagine what that would be like: Exploding fireworks or shimmering cascades of green, teal, cobalt, and gold everywhere you look. And yes, it would be loud. O'Connor describes this for us in the essay:
Frequently the cock combines the lifting of his tail with the raising of his voice. He appears to receive through his feet some shock from the center of the earth, which travels upward through him and is released: Eee-ooo-ii! Eee-ooo-ii! To the melancholy this sound is melancholy and to the hysterical it is hysterical. To me, it has always sounded like a cheer for an invisible parade.
Likewise, she describes the various reactions that the sight of a peacock elicits. A man who was treated to a perfect display merely commented on the bird's long, ugly legs. An old woman disliked them so much that she compelled her grandson to slaughter and eat them. But the childlikethe actually young and the spiritually socannot help but gape and enjoy. This is the key to her point: one's reaction to the sound or sight of a peacock corresponds to the state of his or her soul. She does not say this plainly, but this is what I take from it; and it reminds me to allow awe and wonder to come pouring in every chance I get. It reminds me to become like a child if I wish to enter the Kingdom of God. There's no better invitation to be amazed and humbled than today, when the Word became flesh.

We must not be caught emulating the ambivalent peahen, who, as O'Connor describes, fails to appreciate the arching splendor before her, "diligently searching the ground as if any bug in the grass were of more importance than the unfurled map of the universe which floats nearby." C.S. Lewis made this same point in "The Weight of Glory":
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
A failure of imagination is a pitiful excuse. We must train ourselves to look upto appreciate truth, goodness, and beauty wherever we find it, especially when it is right in front of us.

In the Christian tradition, the peacock represents more than one astonishing reality: the Resurrection, eternal life, the communion of saints/the Church. I would like to add the Incarnation as another feather in the cap. (According to five seconds of Googling, I'm not the first person to think of this as demonstrated in the above tapestry and here.) The colors are so reminiscent of the Archangel Gabriel icon which I had the privilege of writing (so much more than painting!) a few years ago. I like to imagine that the Blessed Virgin looked on God's resplendent messenger and saw something similar to a peacock's tail. She was, after all, being offered the whole Paschal Mystery. Surely the Annunciation was dazzlingly beautiful, as so many artists have ventured, filling their canvases with symbols and drama. Perhaps there was even a glimpse of her crown of glory, foreshadowed by the beast's majestic crest, capping off her eternal legacy as Queen of the Universe. And because of her fiat, the peacock's cosmic map is now emblazoned on her veil.

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Recently, I heard a talk which pointed out that Flannery O'Connor's fiction is itself like a peacock: it is a bolt from the bluea shocking, unaccountable call to deeper conversion. If you'd like perfect fodder for meditation in these last few days of Lent, read her short story, "Parker's Back," and let the Incarnate Word be tattooed on your soul in time for His Resurrection.

P.S. This is what I was talking about at the end of my owl post last year. Now you know.

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Here's a lovely piece from Carrots for Michaelmas about Annunciation iconography. Such good points!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Heaven as Eternal After Party: Inspiration in the Trenches


Half of my life ago, all I wanted was to be on Saturday Night Live. While vacationing with my family, I spent my babysitting money on a coffee-table book about the first twenty years of SNL which I brought with me on the bus every single day of junior high. I looked at it so much that all the pages fell out as I committed each character and skit to memory. My ninth-grade English teacher prompted us to write a brief essay on who we would like to meet most, living or dead, and I chose Lorne Michaels. He was my favorite "creator," after all. I wanted him to make me in his comedic image.

Much has changed since then. I became a serious Catholic instead of a serious comedian (not that the two are mutually exclusive). I still love finding SNL clips posted on Facebook by friends and family, but I no longer plan my entire weekend around this sound. Recently, I happened upon Jimmy Fallon's recap of the 40th Anniversary Special, and it inspired this post. Do watch the whole thing. It's delightful:


Look at Jimmy's face as he tells this story. It glows as if he is beholding the Beatific Vision in his mind's eye. Listen to the ecstatic glee in his voice. He can hardly contain himself as he recounts this streaming parade of celebrities, laughing, and jamming, and being together on the stage. He just lived my teenage dream, and dubbed it, "Untoppable." I said aloud to my computer screen, "This is what Heaven will be like."

I needed that at this point in Lent, just as we need the Gospel of the Transfiguration on this Second Sunday to remind us what all the hardship is for.

Lent is always much more difficult than I plan for it to be. I line up my sacrifices, make my resolutions, struggle to keep them. Meanwhile, I'm met with dozens of "temporal inadequacies" (as a friend recently called them) throughout each of the forty days. They always unfold in a series of small inconveniences, spaced out just enough that I don't completely despair but frequent enough that I lose my sense of direction. Where am I going? What is the point? I remember last year at this time, Screwtape & Co. had tons of fun making me late to things. For instance, I would be driving the same route which, in Ordinary Time, had predictable lights that I knew and depended on as I cruised through the downtown. But one Lenten day, they all conspired and fell into anarchy. Red. Red. Red. Red. Red. I could feel the fiery reflection on my face and I succumbed to rage. I was about to shout out a series of expletives when I suddenly shifted to, "I JUST WANT TO GO TO HEAVEN!!!"

Right. That's what it's all about: making it to the After Party, the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb. There the celebrity status will be of a different kind. The people will be supremely talented, but in virtue above all. Perhaps the elect are treated to a Dantesque tour of Paradise leading up to the banquet. It'll be like Jimmy Fallon encountering Jack Nicholson and Cheri O'Teri, but instead John Paul II and Teresa of Avila. (Bill Murray will overlap. I'm on it.)

Imagine the same scene that Jimmy Fallon described but with a different cast: not Princefloating onto the stage, but the Kingfloating onto the altar, addressing the crowd, "Dearly Inebriated...", those words reminding you of the Anima Christi prayer: "Blood of Christ, inebriate me." You look down into your brimming cup and think, "Yes. They have saved the best wine for last."

Honestly, I cannot imagine anything better than a Solemn High Mass mixed with a wedding feast attended by many millions of my closest friends for all eternity. And, very happily, we don't even have to wait until we're dead. We can get a backstage pass to the party now. That is what holiness is, as C.S. Lewis so charmingly put it when he described the "new men":
Already the new men are dotted here and there all over the earth. Some, as I have admitted, are still hardly recognisable: but others can be recognised. Every now and then one meets them. Their very voices and faces are different from ours: stronger, quieter, happier, more radiant. They begin where most of us leave off. They are, I say, recognisable; but you must know what to look for. They will not be very like the idea of ‘religious people’ which you have formed from your general reading. They do not draw attention to themselves. You tend to think that you are being kind to them when they are really being kind to you. They love you more than other men do, but they need you less. [...] They will usually seem to have a lot of time: you will wonder where it comes from. When you have recognised one of them, you will recognise the next one much more easily. And I strongly suspect (but how should I know?) that they recognise one another immediately and infallibly, across every barrier of colour, sex, class, age, and even of creeds. In that way, to become holy is rather like joining a secret society. To put it at the very lowest, it must be great fun.
From a secular perspective, nearly that whole paragraph could be used to describe celebritythe "It" Factor. There have been times in history when the celebrities and the saints were the same people. The potential for that is still very real, perhaps less within the minds of the fans than within the hearts of the artists, but I would love to see much more of both. Many celebrities do seem to be touched with divinity in some instances. I actually think Jimmy Fallon could be one of these "new men." He is so joyful and kind, hilarious and amazing. He's a fallen-away Catholic. Do you remember that NPR interview that he gave three years ago? He told Terry Gross that he wanted to be a priest. He described with great love the traditional Mass in all its virtues. Yes, he's fallenbut he can get up; he's awaybut he can come back.

Sometimes secular celebrities say or do very surprising and inspiring things. (I tend to gravitate towards this theme as evidenced here and here.) I just saw that Eric Clapton wrote a song to the Blessed Mother while he was in rehab, for example. Maybe that happened because some "Layla" fan repeatedly prayed rosaries for him. It's possible! What prayers and penances were spent on Bryan Ferry (of the British art rock band, "Roxy Music") to prompt this stunning, glorious piece of work?


My Lent has been filled with this video thanks to the friend who recommended it after giving a beautiful talk about mortification. It's a little taste of the After Partythe Marriage Supper of the Lambright here in time.  It is helping me to keep my eyes on the prize, and to keep the peace in the midst of so many temporal inadequacies. It also reminds me to be grateful for the gift of faith, and to pray earnestly for every name in Jimmy Fallon's litany of celebrities. You should do this, too: for the rest of Lent, light a candle each day for the conversion of some artist that you love. Your prayers can make all the differencebelieve that! And should you meet those souls in Heaven, jamming along with the entire Cloud of Witnesses, what satisfaction there will beforevermore!

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Here's the post from Busted Halo in which I found the SNL recap clip: What Jimmy Fallon Can Teach Us This Lent. It's a good read.

Here's Stephen Colbert (with a real white beard!) talking about his Catholic faith in a recent interview.

Big news! More audio-recordings of C.S. Lewis have been recovered! Listen to him delivering what became Mere Christianity and weep for joy.

Finally, there is a new edition of Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World , an apocalyptic tale in which unity in Christ is contrasted with the purely-secular unity of a religion of humanity. Pope Francis loves it and you will, too!


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

No "Pitch Black" Heart: Seeing the Sacred in "Calvary"


I know that many people sat in shocked silence in theaters across the world last year as Calvarya film that uses the priest abuse scandal as its plot-driving devicefaded to black. I was not one of them. I was sobbing and sobbing between puffs of, "Thank you, God! Thank you, God!" Perhaps it was the benefit of first seeing the movie in the privacy of my own home with no audience but my husband beside me. No need to feel self-conscious, no crowd-reaction carrying me along with it, no wondering what the guy behind me who munched on popcorn through gut-wrenching scene after gut-wrenching scene might be thinking now. But really, I believe it was that I had just witnessed the most beautiful, perfect ending to any movie ever made.

When I returned the DVD to Redbox, a notification popped up on my phone: "Did you enjoy the movie? Rate it now!" I clicked, scrolled, and beheld with horror the comments left by other viewers, such as, "I thought this was going to be funny, but instead it was sick and twisted and gross. I wish someone had warned me." *one star* I sat with my mouth hanging open as I clicked *five stars* hoping to tip the scale of humanity away from the gaping mouth of despair.

Dear disgruntled viewer: Yes, Calvary has been billed as a comedy but that is terribly misleading. (It is hilarious several times but should never appear in a Netflix lineup adjacent to Tommy Boy.) Yes, some of the content was sick and twisted and gross, but that was not the point of the movie. That was the villain. That was what the hero, Fr. James, was fighting against. And though I guess you missed it, the priest won. The sick and twisted and gross were restored to their proper place: beneath the heel of the Holy.

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I intend for this post to be read by people who have already seen the film. Just stop now if you haven't and come back later once you have. If you need a refresher on the plot and the characters, plus some excellent commentary, here is Fr. Barron for you. He gives a beautiful exposition of Fr. James as a Good Shepherd. I intend to fill in one gap left by him, and to challenge the leading tag line that was used for promotional purposes:

"AN INVENTIVE WHODUNIT WITH A PITCH BLACK HEART."

Clearly, this is the darling favorite quote of someone very close to the film since it even appears here, on the official website. I'll grant that it is an inventive whodunit, though that made-up word seems far too flippant to stand so close to Fr. James's fluttering cassock. Maybe it's supposed to be really metarepresenting the oft flippant parishoners. But there's really no excuse for the second half, for this film's heart is anything but black. Rather, it is bruised, pierced, enthorned, bleeding, and burning. It is the Sacred Heart of Christ.

Happily, the actor who plays Fr. James, the unparalleled Brendan Gleeson, noticed this:


The Sacred Heart actually appears in the film, also. But apparently, given his, "Aw yeah, cool," in that interview, the director did not intend what I'm about to describe. But as the second half of that clip explains, that doesn't matter. It's art that goodthis blog's most cherished theme.

Fiona, Fr. James's daughter, notices that he has no photographs in his bedroom. But he does have two images on opposite walls from one another: a crucifix with a prie dieu beneath it and a painting of the Sacred Heart. These are the two depictions of Christ that he wakes to, prays with, and sees before sleeping. And they are the two main themes of the film. The crucifix is more obvious, given that the title of the movie comes from the hill on which the Crucifixion took place. It also typifies the penultimate scene, the hero's willing self-sacrifice and the murder of a man in persona Christi. The Sacred Heart is more subtle. It is signaled briefly that fateful Sunday morning as Fr. James kneels at his prie dieu, making his peace with God. The camera is pointed at the opposite wall, and we see the painting. The priest's head moves up, eclipsing the imagebecoming the image. He will carry it with him to his death.

The scene on the beach is gruesome, gory, excruciating in the way that the Crucifixion is. But the movie does not end there. I think many people were so shocked by the gunshot that they were catatonic for the next few minutes. But those few minutes are everything. First, a panning montage of all of the characters: some signal a hint of positive change, others do not. There are glimmers of hope, but not enough to revive you from the beach scene. But then, the camera slides into the prison and we find Fionasomber, silent, waiting. She is there to talk to her father's killer. At this point, your soul should be climbing the rungs of a ladder out of Hell, one step per beat of this moment. Why is she there? How is she there? This fragile creature who had not long ago attempted suicide is now performing one of the most heroic of all human tasks: forgiveness. She learned it from her father, implicitly and explicitly. He lit that torch in her heart, and she now carries it with her, burning, pierced, bleeding, open.

Fr. Barron claims that Fiona is smiling at him. She isn't quite. Her face is far more complicated and even more imploring than that. Her dripping eyes shine with the light of God. Her closed lips pin her to her chair, steadying her like a rock, waiting for an answer to her kind and gentle invitation. Fr. Barron leaves his comments there as if that is the ending. But I submit that it is rather the climax of the drama, superseding even the beach scene. For Jack, pulling that trigger was easy compared to lifting that phone to his ear. Will he do it? Will he open himself to that light and answer her tortured heart with his own? Will the horrors that he has endured be defeated, and the horrors that he has committed be redeemed? Fiona's forgiveness is beautiful and crucial; but the acceptance of forgivenessthat is what saves. Jack could back away, crying, sputtering, turning his gaze from hers just as he did with her father before her. He could stumble back into the pit, perhaps never to leave it again. But he does not. He locks eyes with her and we watch as she reels him in with her love. A literal call to conversion has been answered. Despite all likelihoodall manner of temptation, Jack has not despaired. After Calvary comes the Empty Tomb. This moment is like the shot of light shining through Christ's glorified wound at the end of The Passion. The music is perfect. The acting is perfect. The editing is perfecta dénouement for all time.

The film is hard to watch. It is gritty and grinds against a multitude of sensitivities. But it is so very real. This is what happens in the wake of a scandal so devastating as the priest abuses. These are the seven deadly sins run amok in the field with the shepherd chasing after them. Yet it is alsofirmly and clearlythe lost sheep, found. Through its ending, this film has revealed itself to be a perfect story, because it is a complete storya eucatastrophic one. Fr. James says, "My time will never be gone." Here is an opportunity to believe in those words.

As I've watched people leave the Church citing the abuse scandal as their leading reason, I've often thought, "There must be a movie. A story about this so good and moving that it can show that the Spotless Bride of Christ is greater than the sum of Her sinful parts, and can halt this exodus in its tracks." Movies can be that powerful. They can change hearts and minds by capturing the imagination and stirring the soul. Thanks be to God, that film has been made. Many people have seen it, but not enough. Many people have misunderstood it. Explain it to them. Many people have lauded it as a masterpiece without fully knowing why. This is why:


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For a lovely and rich treatment of this movie, be sure to read this from Aleteia, "Calvary": A Hymn to Sacramental Life (in a Minor Key).

Though this might not affect anyone else the way it did me, here is a song that I listened to ten times in a row while on an elliptical machine right before I started writing this. It helped me to digest the themes. I can try to explain how if pressed.  

I could write much more. I would love to write a book and teach a class on this movie. I wanted to write about the dog, the cannibal, the cassock, the marriage, the water, the fire, on and on. Please do comment or email me if you want to keep discussing. I'm all fingertips.

Also, in case you missed it, Through a Glass Brightly was nominated for two Sheenazing Blogger Awards.

Monday, January 19, 2015

2015 Sheenazing Awards


Woohoo! Through a Glass Brightly has been nominated once again in the Sheenazing Blogger Awards! You'll find me under "Smartest Blog" (Where is that *blushing face* emoticon?) and "Best Under-Appreciated Blog". Be sure to click around to discover the delights and wonders of the Catholic blogosphere. Have fun and vote for your favorites!

I'll repeat what I said last year: A thousand thanks to whoever nominated me! I'm truly honored to be associated with Venerable Fulton J. Sheen in any way. I've listened to his wonderful Life is Worth Living talks for years, and I borrowed many of his ideas when I taught high school theology. May he be raised to the altars (despite the snag).
 
UPDATE: I did not win a Sheenazing, but Daniel "Bearman" Stewart gave me a vote of confidence (at the bottom) and that made me really happy. Go check out the winners!

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I'm working on a new post right now about the movie, Calvary (2014) which I finally saw (twice) last weekend. Look for it sometime in the next few days.

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.

- Mise En Scène & the Visual Themes of Wes Anderson

- The 10 Most Affecting Wes Anderson Moments

- The Royal Tenenbaums: A Values & Visions Guide

- The 42 Most Hilarious Gravestones of All Time

- God Joins Our Dysfunctional Family

- 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.

I want you to read this post, Bryan Ferry.