“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.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the hunt commence. 


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

Sunday, August 10, 2014

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Alterdiluvian Art: A Sampling of Superior Noahs


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

***

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

Friday, April 25, 2014

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


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 college, 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. 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 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.