“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, 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.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My Thing with Owls: A Meditation on Divine Providence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 27, 2014

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next topic: A meditation on Divine Providence for Lent.