“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 19, 2015

Twelve Hungry Men: The Disciples, the Death Penalty, and one Brilliant Play

 
 
The Boston Bomber has been sentenced to death, adding more poignancy to this post which has been rattling around in my brain for months. A Facebook friend posted that link and added her own caption, "Killing is wrong. Unless you're the government."
 
***

I had a profound experience during the Holy Thursday liturgy this year. I was sitting quite close to the front when the washing of the feet took place. The atmosphere in the church was perfectly reverent and meditative, inviting me to carefully consider each man as he approached the humbled priest. I studied their faces, their clothes, their body language. Whoever chose the twelve this year is some kind of genius, because all of the men were so different from one anotherdistinct in age, looks, status, personality, temperament, etc., reminiscent of the compelling modern painting of the Last Supper (above) which was recently featured in the Magnificat. They really were like the twelve apostles, representing the twelve Tribes of Israel; yet these seemed to be the twelve social tribes of our little town.

Even though I only knew a few of them personally, I tried to map the disciples onto these men: "Which one is John the Beloved? OH. That one. Yes. What about Peter? Hmm..." A little while later, when habituation expected to hear bells at the Sanctus, I was startled by the sound of a loud thwack. Oh, that sound! It pierces me straight through every time. I remember when I first heard it at a Latin Mass in college. The whip-likeness struck me to the bone, and I suddenly knew Our Lord's Passion was close at hand. This time, I looked up and saw a crotalus of another kind. It was shaped exactly like a gavel, and I was reminded of another set of twelve men.

I must have been in ninth grade when I walked into the family room one evening to find my dad watching a black-and-white movie that was not It's a Wonderful Life. I stood there studying the screen in confusion, having accidentally imbibed the idea that old must be inferior to new. My dad said, "This is really good. You should watch it." Thankfully, I did. Now, I've seen Twelve Angry Men (1957, written by Reginald Rose and directed by Sidney Lumet) about a dozen times, and its rich lessons about human nature have made an indelible mark. Here's a brief synopsis: Following the closing arguments in a murder trial, the twelve members of the jury must deliberate, with a guilty verdict meaning death for the accused, an inner-city teen. As the men try to reach a unanimous decision while sequestered in a room, one juror (Henry Fonda) casts considerable doubt on elements of the case. Personal issues soon rise to the surface, and conflict threatens to derail the delicate process that will decide one boy's fate.

If you haven't seen it, do so immediately.

With that play-turned-film now scrolling in my head, I sat in the pew reflecting back on the washing of the feet thinking, "Which one is Henry Fonda? Is it the same as St. John? It should be since he's the closest to Christ and therefore the most merciful. Wait, who's Jesus? Oh! The convicted kid! Yes! YES! OH! Are there twelve jurors because there were twelve disciples? (Apparently, yes.) This is such an exciting Mass! I have to blog about this!"

So here we are.

Like the disciples, those twelve men represent all of humanity. (Here is a quick character sketch.) The one trait that they have in common is given to us in the titleangry. I find this really interesting. Yes, they're angry at the situation and, at times, one another. But after my careful study of the narrative, I think a more fitting descriptor would be hangry; for their anger stems from their hungerhunger for righteousness, hunger for truththough most of them scarcely sense that nagging, gnawing feeling within. Yet all at once, their appetites are made more acute by the compassion and courage of the one and only juror who sees the defendant as the child of God that he isdignified and therefore worthy of a closer look.

My views on the death penalty were challenged by that film (What if there's a jury without a conscientious person on it? How many innocent people are executed because of weak character?); but about two years after I saw it, a very compelling research project in history class changed my mind completely. I chose as my topic the Lindbergh casethe kidnapping of aviation-hero Charles Lindbergh's toddler son and subsequent trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann which newspaper writer H. L. Mencken called "the biggest story since the Resurrection." (What a claim!) I read several books on the "Crime of the Century" (like this), but one in particular convinced me, horrifyingly, that Hautpmann was innocent (may he rest in peace) and the real culprit was Charles Lindbergh himself.


I had never experienced such indignation, and I found myself ravenously hungry. I craved justice for the wrongfully accused and his poor, pleading widow. At that time, I was seriously considering film school, so it naturally occurred to me that this could be my first featurea drama powerful enough to clear Hauptmann's name and expose "Lucky Lindy" for the criminal that (I believe) he was. I saw myself as both Juror # 8 (Fonda)asking everyone around me to reexamine the case, and film director (Lumet)moved so deeply by Rose's play that he had to share it with an expansive audience. That idea which lingered in the back of my mind while I was writing my paper suddenly came screeching to the forefront when I found a picture of Hauptmann that looked strikingly like the actor I had just seen in the movie, Frequency.

  
I screamed, ran to my car, drove to Borders, and bought three books about screenwriting. I tried my hand but did not get very far. Life got in the way. I did try to mail Jim Caviezel a copy of that one resource which contained all the elements of a shockingly good film. This blog post is an attempt to reclaim my forgotten zeal and reach the right people; for the crime of this century is that such a film has not yet been made.

In my mind, all of this is related to the disciples and the liturgical season in which we now find ourselves because that man on the right played Jesus and the Lindbergh kidnapping case might be, again, "the biggest story since the Resurrection." Also, the death penalty and the concerted Catholic effort against it appeared in the news quite a lot recently, and we ought to be part of the conversation. Here is a good article from the New York Times about the how the people of Boston feel about the decision to execute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. That's a great starting point. And while we're talking about capital punishment in this country, we should also think about the ways in which we sentence the people around us to the "death penalty" of our own estimation. We think of those we dislike as unworthy of our care or even notice. We write them offdespair of them as if they were not children of God. But as a beautiful, simple line from C.S. Lewis humbly reminds us, "You have never talked to a mere mortal." When I first came across that line in The Weight of Glory, I became immediately convicted and unequivocally pro-life. I started taking everyone more seriously, more lovingly. How can we presume to know a man's soul? Who are we to take such matters out of the hands of the Author of Life? And how can we fail to value someone whom God deems worthy of existence?

We must guard our hearts against the temptation to despise evil-doers, for "anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him" (1 John 3:15). Hatred inflicts the death penalty on ourselves. A story like Twelve Angry Men can affect this kind of change in us. I think it is ultimately against the death penalty in its message. One juror asks #8 (Fonda), "Suppose you talk us all out of this and the kid really did knife his father." That point is never addressed directly; but I think the overall message is that even if the boy is guilty, it doesn't mean he deserves to die. That jury room in the play/film functions like the Upper Room in the Gospels/Act. It is a place where mercy and grace convert hearts and minds. It teaches us to consider carefully the immortal beings in our midstto afford others the benefit of the doubt because we have asked why and how until we have a fuller picture of the truth, and recognize Him who is Truth even in our enemies.

The disciples were taught this explicitly. Right after Christ washed their feet, he gave them this new commandment: "Love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35).  Just a little while after this, all but one failed miserablythey all voted "guilty" by what they did, and what they failed to do. Christ knew it would happen, and it is the reason that He stressed the importance of leaving them all again after the Resurrection. His Ascent to the Father would make way for the Descent of the Holy Spirit.

Liturgically, this is where we are right now. We await Pentecost, the time at which all of the lessons Christ taught in His earthly ministry will finally take flame in our souls. The power to love the unlovableto allow for reasonable doubt and not condemn others to deathis a supernatural one. This Sunday, we are invited to put ourselves in the Upper Room where the disciples feasted on Christ's immortal flesh and where the Advocate will come to remind us of all that He saidall the facts of the case, the details of the trial. We must bring our hunger with us to the table, and allow ourselves to be filled up with grace. And then, we will be sent out into the worldjust like the twelve jurors to their twelve corners, converted by their encounter with mercy and true justiceready to set the world ablaze.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.

O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.
   
 
***

This meditation is meant to pave the way for my next post, "How Mad Men Made Me a Better Christian." I'm still processing the finale, but I will start writing soon.

Also, check out this amazing quote which resonates deeply with my point here.

Now someone please go and make that Lindbergh Kidnapping Hoax movie.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A “Fountains of Carrots” Podcast: “Mad Men” and the Meaning of Love with Yours Truly


Recently I was interviewed for a podcast over at Fountains of Carrots, the combined effort of two lovely Catholic bloggers, Haley Stewart (Carrots for Michaelmas) and Christy Isinger (Fountains of Home). We talked about one of my favorite things, Mad Men. Here's their description along with the link.
Digging deep into one of our favorite TV shows, Mad Men, with Kathryn from Through a Glass Brightly. The meaning of love, the purpose of man, the fulfillment of the human person: why we think this show’s got it all!
Click here for the Fountains of Carrots page and links to the podcast. I hope you enjoy it! This is obviously very personal to me, so I’d love for you to comment and share!

***

Also, check out this article on Mad Men by Elizabeth Scalia over at First Things.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The King of the Birds and the Queen of the Universe


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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Monday, March 2, 2015

Heaven as Eternal After Party: Inspiration in the Trenches


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

***

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

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


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

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

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

***

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

"AN INVENTIVE WHODUNIT WITH A PITCH BLACK HEART."

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


***

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 19, 2015

2015 Sheenazing Awards


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

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

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

Sunday, December 21, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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

- Mise En Scène & the Visual Themes of Wes Anderson

- The 10 Most Affecting Wes Anderson Moments

- The Royal Tenenbaums: A Values & Visions Guide

- The 42 Most Hilarious Gravestones of All Time

- God Joins Our Dysfunctional Family

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

Merry Christmas, dear readers!