“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.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Truth Well Told: How "Mad Men" Made Me a Better Person

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” 
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Preface: Three years ago, I was invited by a Midwestern college's Catholic Society to give a talk on a theological theme. I chose to pare down a paper I had written in a graduate class that was on the idea of spiritual transparency (especially in the novel and film, Diary of a Country Priest). Before wading into the primary source material, I waxed poetic about stained glass in churches and strung together some of my favorite ideas from all of the homilies I've heard since my reversion to the Faith. The title of the paper was, "Through a Glass Brightly."
When I finished presenting, I happily agreed to take questions. A young professor (who actually had founded the group that invited me) raised his hand and said something like, "Through your paper you've claimed that truth, goodness, and beauty are all one. Well what would you say about something like the popular TV show, Mad Men, which is arguably very aesthetically rich and even beautiful, but lacks those other two qualities?" Little did he know, I loved (LOVE) that show with a burning ferocity, so I confidently replied, "No! It's all three." My twinkling eyes scanned the faces of a couple dozen impressionable undergraduates whose expressions ranged from surprised to scandalized. I scrambled to explain myself for the next several minutes, but ultimately felt that I hadn't done the show or the question justice. Feeling embarrassed, I thought, "Good thing I won't have to see them again."
Then, we moved there.
But in the meantime, I started this blogmostly so that I could practice my ideas on several other topics before tackling this huge one when the show would finally conclude after seven seasons. That has now happened, and I'm ready. But I can't do it all here. I've tried. I've written many different versions of this, and ultimately I just don't want to spoil any of it for you. To satisfy myself fully, I plan to write a book-length compendium to the series with an essay on each episode exploring its themes in light of the whole narrative. (Knowing the ending really changes the re-viewing experience. It's wonderful.) If that's something you're interested in, let me know.
What I want to do here is give a brief apologia for the show in order to encourage those of you who gave up to give it another chance or to inspire new viewers to dive in. Above all, I want to honor the show for what it did for me and can do for you.
"Love the sinner, hate the sin." I had no idea what to do with that for most of my life. For a long time, I thought it was just something cryptic that Jesus said that we were not really expected to understand or practice. Leave that to Him since He's God and we're not. But it turns out, it's something that St. Augustine said, and it succinctly sums up an important dimension of Christian discipleship.
As an adult Catholic, I had embraced the apostolate in the purest mode I could imagine: I became a theology teacher and taught New Testament and Apologetics. I wanted to pass on the amazing things I had learned in college and give students the formation that I never had in high school. But with no teacher training and about six weeks under the bridge, I couldn't stand most of my students. In the middle of a class about the Passion account in John's Gospel wherein I practically opened a vein, ecstatically linking passages and illuminating themes, a student smugly said out loud, "You're just making this up as you go along." I stared at him in horror and sent him out of the room. As I tried to compose myself, I heard a low rumbling voice in my head: "Pearls before swine."
That seemed like a logical paradigm for a while: "I'm giving these kids gold and they don't appreciate it. To hell with them, then." But something about that didn't quite gel with the point of my job which was to present Jesus to teenagers...
I needed good spiritual direction. Thankfully, I got it.
"Like the material, love the kids." That's what the priest said. It sounded just as impossible as the first puzzling aphorism. "But the material is GOD! The kids are heathen idiots!" I huffed through the grille. "No," he gently corrected me. "The kids are human beings. God is more present in them than in the books, however great they are. And you'll never reach them if you don't get to know them." And so, I began to get to know some. I went the easiest route possible and focused on my A students. Loving them was enough to keep me in the classroom. But I didn't learn to love my D studentsor anyone in the world like themuntil I met Don Draper.
Watching Mad Men coincided with a moment in my personal life that allowed me to see myself and my work differently. Good art is good by its own merits and for the ways it allows vastly different people to make sense of their own experiences.
After five seasons of enjoying the show with my husband, together dissecting and analyzing each episode, I wanted to get to know the show's creator, Matthew Weiner. I listened to his interview with Terry Gross during an episode of her NPR's show, "Fresh Air." About half way through the discussion, Gross suddenly asked Weiner,
"How much do you want us to hate Don Draper, because as much as - speaking for myself, as much I, you know, to some degree, empathize with his existential crises and, you know, sympathize with it, as well, he's such a hypocrite, he's such a louse. He so mistreats his wife that I just get so angry with him. And I just want to know how angry do you want me to be with Don Draper? How much do you want me to dislike him as opposed to feeling some sympathy for his existential crisis?"
Then it happened. Weiner revealed himself to be the kind of artist I hoped he was:

"I'm going to sound like an idiot here. I don't want you to dislike him at all. I don't dislike any of these people. I am not judgmental when I am in drama or in life. And I think that you are supposed to identify with the dark parts of yourself [...]"

Yes. This is how I felt. Weiner's goal was reached in me.

When I was in college, I was particularly fascinated with two ideas: 1) the causes and effects of a bifurcated mind or identity as presented in works of  literature (particularly Doctor Faustus, Richard III, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Gollum/Smeagol in The Lord of the Rings, and Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley) which explore in rich detail just how sins of deceit corrode the soul, often leading to madness; and 2) a line from Brideshead Revisited, "To know all is to forgive all," which helped me to appreciate our all-knowing, all-merciful God. These concepts went hand in hand: the devil divides, God unifies. So I came to understand that one of the primary goals of the spiritual life is to foster personal integrity. After all, if we're supposed to love others as we love ourselves, how can we even begin to do that if we ourselves are fractured and broken? How can we be healed by forgiveness if we won't reveal our transgressions? Is unconditional love really possible? That, my friends, is what Mad Men is about.

I have heard so many people say they lost interest in the show because there was no one to cheer for. I just don't understand it. The characters are just like real people, only we know them even better. We see them even when they're alone. In fact, we may even know them better than they know themselves, and that's why we are able to root for them. For instance, the audience knows early on that Don Draper's true identity is Dick Whitman: His mother was a prostitute who died giving birth to him, his father was a "dishonest man" who taught him nothing but how to drink, and after his father's death the poor boy spent his entire adolescence in a whore house. What does that do to a person? How does one recover from that? How?

Art can tell us because it imitates life. And this television show can tell us because it imitates great literature. Its power lies in its transcendent qualitiesall three of them:


Realism is one of its most defining characteristics. Matthew Weiner is obsessed with it. One time he called off a day's worth of shooting because the apples on the table were too biggenetically  modified ones didn't exist in the '60s. The props and costumes get a lot of attention. Yet what dazzles me is the truth about human nature. The people on Mad Men behave just like real people, especially those searching for meaning with little to no guidance from religion. But religious truths punctuate the show from beginning to end. The show functions as an education in the way things are.

Sin is treated as sin—as something that really harms the sinner, not as something that is merely disapproved of by others. Don's philandering is confronted in every season very directly and pointedly: "You're garbage and you know it" (Jimmy Barret), "You are not a good person!" (Allison), "Dying doesn't make you whole. You should see what you look like" (the ghost of PF Dinkins). "I'll do you a favor and take it out. But it's not your tooth that's rotten" (the ghost of Adam Whitman). There are clairvoyant ghosts! It's like a Medieval allegory play!

The show is often praised for its originality, exemplifying what C.S. Lewis meant when he wrote:
"Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it" (Mere Christianity).

The show is honest about the bad and rejoices in the good. It has a few blind spots but appreciates man's inherent dignity. It believes in the pursuit of virtue. Matthew Weiner is Jewish and may or may not be practicing. But his formative roots undergird much of the show. Shooting from those roots are Christian images and themes. He said in a recent interview, "I really do believe in the continuum of the Old Testament and the New Testament together." That shines in the Judeo-Christian values upheld in the narrative (family, loyalty, forgiveness, love, etc.), sometimes in relief. He has also said that he is "fascinated with Catholicism," which is clear in most of the ads made by Peggy, the entire sixth season, dozens and dozens of images, concepts, and lines throughout, and the finale (VERY MUCH SOnot spoiling is killing me). A recent Humans of New York post, featuring an Eastern Orthodox priest, reminded me (at least in part) of Weiner's presentation:

           "Who do you love most in the world?"
           "When did you find it most difficult
            to  love God?"
           "Why during childhood?"...
           "Because I always wondered why things
             happened to me."
           "How long did you wonder why?"
           "Until I found God, then I knew why."
           "Because people aren't bad, they're sick.
            And sick people do bad things."
Let's take a commercial break and read that again, along with the quote from Solzhenitsyn in my epigraph. Meditate on them for a moment and let your sick heart find solace. Brought to you by Mad Men.

Much of this goodness comes from the Western literary canon which permeates the narrative, especially Shakespeare, Dante, and T.S. Eliot. Weiner said in an interview, "There were a couple years there where The Waste Land was the most interesting thing in the world to me. I loved that it was so personal and grimy and gross and epic at the same time." I, too, studied the poem in college and noticed the affinity between it and Mad Men all along, so much so that the first version of this post was written over a year ago and it was titled, "Man Men in the Waste Land." I spared you the 1600+ words, but here's one point: The epigraph to The Waste Land contains a Greek phrase that means, "Lust is too burdensome, death is seen as a welcome." That might as well be the epigraph to all of season six in which Don is fixated on death in the midst of his most dangerous affair. He makes a pitch to Royal Hawaiian, the resort at which he spends Christmas with Megan, that features footprints and clothes left in the sand and no sign of a body that has been swallowed up by the beautiful blue waters. The clients can't see anything but suicide, and Don is surprised. He imagined that the man launched himself into paradise, but not by dying. Or does he? Later in the season, there is a moment when Don takes hallucinogenic drugs and sees his body floating in a pool. It calls to mind Eliot's fourth section titled, "Death by Water" about a Phoenician sailor, which ends with the line, "Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you." It's as if Eliot is talking to Don as he stares at himself facedown in the water, inviting him not to death by drowning, but to new life by baptism.

Also, I recently stated that the feel of the show is remarkably similar to the wonderful novel, Kristin Lavransdatter. If I don't get to it, someone please write a dissertation about that. Mad Men also makes many allusions to literature from the time period that the show depicts: Jack Kerouac, the Beat poets, Meditations in an Emergency, and many more. I know next to nothing about those, but I just want to point out that there's plenty in there for people with tastes that differ from mine.


Oh, it is so beautiful. I don't even mean the actors, costumes, and sets. Yes, they are aesthetically rich and pleasing, but so are many other things that do not also evoke a truly religious response in me. I can't make anyone else feel this way (alas), but if only I could show you what it's like when this show breaks me open, pours me out, and raptures my heart with love for God. I experience this every time Don and Peggy express their non-romantic love for one another. I experienced this in season one's episode, "Babylon," because I had just taught the Book of Revelation to my New Testament students and I was amazed by the apocalyptic imagery: New York City as Babylon, the men of Madison avenue as its kings, and in the final scene, the "scarlet woman" and the "caged bird." It is so well-crafted. Another time I died and resurrected as a better version of myself was when Don rejects the woman on the plane who invites him into another affair. He turns from her and opens the shade to let the light in. Later in that episode, he chooses not to drink himself numb and instead goes out on his balcony in the frigid winter air and mortifies his fallen flesh. He wants to be better. He may have "broken the vessel" as he says of himself, but he is not nihilistic like his seatmate on the plane. He will not resign himself to brokenness. It so thoughtful and sincere, so sad and moving and hopeful. The angles, the sweeps, the pacingit is all wonderfully generous to the viewer. Weiner cares immensely about our experience of the show. He doesn't beat us over the head with anything. He lets insights germinate within us instead of on the screen. Bless you for that, Matthew Weiner.

Mad Men is a work of art. It certainly has gritty, troubling elements but so does life, so does nature, so does any famous depiction of the Last Judgment. Weiner isn't the judge of the characters, he's merely the storyteller. Anyone who finds him- or herself in Hell on earth (the dominant theme of season six which opens with Don reading the Inferno) is there because of the choices they made. They are logical and true to life. And by watching the way in, we learn the way out.

That is how this show changed me. It held a mirror up to the dark parts of my own fallen nature; and after naming, claiming, and repenting of those things, I was able to see more brightly. It taught me not to disregard people who seemed like lost causes. There are no lost causes this side of Heaven. I had read that dozens of times in religious books before I believed it thanks to Mad Men. I love Don Draper. I will the good for him and anyone unfortunate enough to carry his crosses.

These lessons can be learned from many sources, but we must learn them. I know that people I love do not experience Mad Men in the way I do, but one must experience it. You know what it is. It's to take the time to know a person very well. It's to empathize rather than only to sympathize. It's to look at a stranger and believe in his or her eternal worth. It's to give someone the benefit of the doubt. It's to judge not lest ye be judged. It's to love one another.

It's the real thing.


If you're already a fan and watched to the end, check out these links:

"Mad Men and the Domesticity of Love" over at Ethika Politika.

"Don Draper's First Confession," by Haley Stewart at Carrots for Michaelmas.

"Mad Men Recaps," by Christy Isinger at Fountains of Home.

"Mad Men and the Meaning of Love," a Fountains of Carrots podcast.

"Love Among the Ruins in Mad Men" from Patheos.

"End of an Era," a montage of clips set to music. Grab a tissue.


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 when he was sent to the electric chair.

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 the real culprit (you'll have to check out the book to see who I think it is). 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.

UPDATE: Nebraska has just banned the death penalty!

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:


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).

Here is an important article by Steven Greydanus, "Does the priest in 'Calvary' recommend mortal sin?"

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!


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.