Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Andy Warhol in Toronto

Today I popped into the Andy Warhol exhibit (no pun intended) on Bloor Street.




There was a very large stack of Campbell's vegetable soup cans (which were very real).





Then I caught Vladimir Lenin scowling at me, both in black and red.



Although separate pieces, the Gotti and Lenin I put side by side for comparison. They represent criminal minds who get popular appeal:




Despite his many complex struggles, Warhol was practicing Catholic, of the Ruthenian rite, who would slip into church in Manhattan. This was the only religious work at the exhibit, labelled as St. Apollonia, a 3rd century martyr.


 


In the documentary film, I overhear Warhol being asked if he is original or not. He says "no." Confounded, the interviewer asks: "Don't you want to do something original?" He replies: "No. This is easier."




The well-known dollar sign print:




Warhol, famously shy and withdrawn, was a bit intimidated by the charismatic athletes he did for a "major athletes" series. There was also a Gretzky print I should have captured, but here, a pop boxer of some repute:




Her Majesty's eyes pierced me to the core:




I believe I was able to identify all the characters from this "wild west" series of screen prints:



And what is probably the most famous Warhol, the Marilyn Monroe:






More soup cans, this time prints on a wall.





The King of Pop:




These things were for actually sale, not part of a pop-art exhibition. It wasn't always clear. 




When Andy Warhol died, there was a memorial Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.





The "Andy Warhol: Revisited" exhibition opened on July 1, and will close on Dec 31. I was glad to have seen a healthy sampling of his works. He will remain an enigmatic but influential figure in the history of modern art.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

It’s a Wonderful Life



Review by John D. O'Brien S.J.

Director: Frank Capra. 130 min., U.S.A, 1946.
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers


Plot
The townspeople of Bedford Falls are sending up prayers for George Bailey (Stewart), who is in great distress. Their prayers are heard and the angel Clarence (Travers) is assigned to come down and convince George to not commit suicide. George is a good man, who sacrificed the dreams of his youth to serve the needs of his neighbours. He gave up traveling the world and going to university, and inherited the savings and loan business from his father. Over the years he resisted the proposals of avaricious banker Mr. Potter (Barrymore) to buy out the family business. He married the lovely Mary Hatch (Reed) and had four children with her. When his Uncle Billy (Mitchell) loses $8,000 of their clients’ money, George believes he is facing ruin and that he is worth more dead than alive. Once Clarence sees he is not able to persuade George that life is worth living, he decides to show him the life in the town as if George had never existed.

Film History
Nobody in Hollywood wanted the script about a man who learns what life would be like if he had never been born. But Frank Capra, fresh off his project of producing war-time documentaries, scooped it up, rewrote the screenplay, and cast Jimmy Stewart and newcomer Donna Reed. When the film opened in late 1946, however, Capra’s special project received mediocre reviews. Post-war America was in the mood for light comedy, not an existential reflection-piece. Nominated for five Academy Awards, it came home with none. So how did the film become the champion it is considered today? Probably two factors: first, within a year, Capra began receiving letters, including more than 1500 stuffed in a bag from the inmates of San Quentin Prison, which described the profound impact the film had on them. The letters kept coming from all over America for years; Capra’s film was connecting deeply with the people.

Second, there was an office error that might today be called providential. In 1974, the studio accidentally forgot to renew its copyright ownership and the film passed into the public domain. Television networks saw an opportunity and began to broadcast it every year, exposing Capra’s film to new audiences (the rights are owned by NBC today). Over time, the generations have come to realize the film’s enduring, universal appeal. In 2006, it was ranked as the #1 Most Inspirational Film by the American Film Institute. The AFI also rated it the #20 Greatest Movie of All Time. Both Capra and his star Jimmy Stewart both said that of all the films they ever did, It’s a Wonderful Life was their favourite.




Reflection
“Until we realize that things might not be, we cannot realize that things are. Until we see the background of darkness we cannot admire the light as a single and created thing. As soon as we have seen that darkness, all light is lightning, sudden, blinding, and divine. Until we picture nonentity we underrate the victory of God, and can realize none of the trophies of His ancient war. It is one of the million wild jests of truth that we know nothing until we know nothing.”   
— G.K. Chesterton


Ignatius has two things to say about love. First, that love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words. As the saying goes, words are cheap, but actions speak volumes. How we act is a more eloquent expression of where our heart is than all the “heart-felt” beliefs we may profess ardently in our speech. I once saw a fridge magnet that said: “Everyone wants to save the world, but nobody wants to help mom do the dishes.”

George Bailey is the everyman who has had to subvert his idealistic dreams to serve his town. How he does this is described by second point of St. Ignatius with regard to love: that love consists in a mutual sharing of goods. The lover gives and shares with the beloved what he possesses, and vice versa, the beloved shares with the lover. "So, if one has knowledge, one shares it with the one who does not possess it. The same happens if one has honours or wealth and so on." George Bailey spends his life sharing what he has with his neighbours. The Bailey Building and Loan exists to help the blue-collar workers and the newcomers to town. It invests in the community and allows immigrant families to own their own homes rather than have to rent dingy apartments from Mr. Potter.

George’s generosity has become instinctual, a part of who he is. We see flashbacks to several key incidents in his life that have developed this trait: he rescued his brother Harry from drowning after he fell through some ice, he prevented a grieving pharmacist from accidentally poisoning a customer, and he saved the Building and Loan several times. George, it is not too much to say, acted out of an authentic concern for his family and for his town, sharing the “goods” of his courage, his availability, his sense of justice and the common good. This is, perhaps, the foremost point of It’s a Wonderful Life. What makes life wonderful, then, but the love – as described by Ignatius – exchanged between persons – the giving of ourselves and our possessions, even if they seem small and inconsequential.

George, of course, does not recognize this trait, and even struggles with his decisions, as we often do. If he was aware of his generosity, it would have lessened its quality, for self-conscious generosity becomes the do-goodery that is a parody of love, and which tends to annoy rather than build up.
George is entirely oblivious of the fact that he is a good man until the very end, which endears him to us. Even at the finale, it is the surprise of the discovery that captures George, which overpowers into gratitude, and restores him to joy.

In the “Fourth Week” of the Spiritual Exercises, the retreatant contemplates the joy of the resurrection, and thereby attains a surprising new kind of love for the Lord. The resurrection was unexpected – even for the disciples who were supposed to know better. We should all be open to being surprised by God, but not without faith: “If we lose our sense of wonder, no wonders will occur among us”. Genuine faith helps us recover our sense of wonder. George Bailey found it when he realized that everything about his life had been a gift: his existence, his friendships, the impact he’d inadvertently had on others.  St. Ignatius invites us to consider everything about our lives that is also a gift – namely everything. Since we are not the authors of our own existence, there is something fundamentally generous in the mere act of being alive. If we can get a glimpse of the gratuity of our existence, we get a glimpse of the nature of the Creator.


Meditation Points
Begin each prayer period with the prayer recommended by St. Ignatius. Ask God our Lord for the grace: “for an intimate knowledge of the many blessings I have received, so that, filled with gratitude, I may so love and serve God in all things.”

  1. Bring to mind all the blessings I have received: of creation, of redemption, and of all the many special blessings. Consider how God desires to give from what he possesses. Consider what it is that I possess.
  2. Bring to mind creation. A) How God dwells in all creatures, from the elements that exist in him, to the life in plants, in the sensation of animals, and in human person who has the gift of understanding. B) That God dwells in me, giving me life, sensation and intelligence. C) How I am a temple of God, created in the image and likeness of God. 
  3. Bring to mind all the blessings, graces and gifts that have come to me from outside myself, from above: my limited powers, justice, goodness, mercy, love, and so on, which all descend from the Creator, like rays of light from the sun, or water from a fountain. Reflect on myself and give thanks.

Finally, we may make the “Suscipe prayer”, also called Take Lord, and Receive:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. You have given all to me. To You, O Lord, I return it. All is yours, dispose of it wholly according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace, for this is sufficient for me. Amen.
Close each meditation with a personal conversation with Jesus (called a “colloquium”) and an “Our Father”.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Of Gods and Men


Review by John D. O'Brien, S.J.

Director: Xavier Beauvois, 122 min., France, 2010.
Starring: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin


Plot
Based on the true story of the eight Trappist monks of the Monastery of Notre-Dame de l’Atlas, who in 1996 found themselves caught in the midst of the Algerian Civil War. The monks live a quiet life of work and prayer and friendship with the Muslim villagers of Tibhirine. Threatened by terrorist factions, they are urged to flee the country. This triggers an excruciating discernment: to leave or to stay with the people they have come to know and love.

Film History
Nominated for many awards, and winning three at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, including the Grand Prize of the Jury.

Spiritual Reflection
It is rare to see a religious film of such power as Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men. It is not a film about the monks’ deaths, which were hailed as martyrdoms, but rather about how they lived and why they were willing to die. The monks were more “martyrs of charity” than martyrs due to hatred of the faith. The film explores the why this was the case.

In the so-called “Third Week” of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, having made the decision to reform one’s life, and the choice to follow the Lord in previous “weeks”, the retreatant’s decision is now tested. Are we willing to be remain with the Lord, even to his ignoble end? Will we follow him, through his passion, to the very foot of the cross? This is the time of ratification of our prior decision. In another sense, it’s a period of learning to see and love the Lord in a whole new light, as the suffering servant, the Lamb of God.

Of all the moments of Christ’s passion in which Of Gods and of Men could be placed, it is above all the Garden of Gethsemane. The monks are experiencing the anguish of an uncertain decision to be made, of the anticipation of suffering, of the demands of love, and of the pathos that this chalice contains. “Pathos” is should be said, normally means a situation in which one both desires and does not desire something and at the same time. We are asked to journey with the monks in their anguish, “keeping watch” with them for just two hours of our time, but over many days of their time. The film is a contemplative experience, one suffused with the power of human presence. Just as the monks comfort one another in fraternal solidarity, so can we comfort Christ in his agony by our decision to remain with him. Presence is a primary language of love. Those who have learned it know that many words are not needed. Loneliness is one of the greatest afflictions of our age, a major poverty in the West. The remedy is to present ourselves attentively – the gift of our presence and our time. In this way we discover the hidden face of Christ in the other.

There are other themes in this film; it is also a reflection on the nature of community, authority, mission, freedom and obedience. But its greatest strength is its treatment, on a more fundamental level, of this: what does it mean to love my neighbour? Everybody in the monastery agrees that they are not called to pursue martyrdom per se. They want to respect the basic human vocation to keep and preserve one’s life. But in the face of the possibility of death, how is that fundamental law altered by Christ’s teaching that “greater love hath no man than to lays down his life for his friends”. But they are not saving lives here. What reason is there to remain at such a cost?

Film critic Roger Ebert did not like the monks’ decision, feeling that their martyrdom was a form of selfishness, when they still had years and talents to dispense to the world. This utilitarian approach to human love and service risking ignoring the very nature of love – its freedom to give itself – which is also the foundation of the film’s own dramatic tension. The Trappists chose to stay with the people among whom they live in the here and now, their immediate flesh and blood friends, the people they knew in the present time. Love is the hermeneutic key to this drama, but a messy, difficult love that is not and cannot be exercised in the abstract. We learn, in a variety of scenes, that the monks are committed to the local people. This relationship was the very reason for which they lived, and Ebert misses the point, both theologically, of course, but also, I think, aesthetically. Their decision, pretty much known to the viewer in advance, is the reason we find the film beautiful.

If the “Third Week” is to meditate on the passion of Christ, this seems an odd place to consider beauty. But I think it’s the best place. For if we come to love that which is viscerally unattractive (the street person, the sick or disfigured), it’s because we have nonetheless perceived something beautiful in them. Let’s examine beauty for a moment – even the beauty of tragedy or of suffering. Aquinas described beauty simply as “id quod visum placet” (that which pleases when seen), and this film pleases us because it represents a mystery well. It conveys resplendently the mystery of God’s interaction with human freedom – which is the essence of all good drama. The film is beautiful because it has beauty’s classic qualities: integrity, proportion and clarity, but it also goes beyond them.

The film’s beauty is more than just its visual presentation, although it includes that. There is an integrity, meaning wholeness, because there is a completeness to its illustration of the dynamic of love. There is proportionality, meaning right ratio between elements, a balance of the film’s constitutive parts. Although the dramatic tension is strong, the visuals and editing are serene, in a way befitting a story whose theme is the mystery of self-donation. There is little music beyond the psalm chants of the monks themselves, although there is a crescendo with the inclusion of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in the celebrated “Last Supper” scene. The liturgical chants in the chapel scenes are fittingly solemn auditory expressions of the paschal mystery unfolding in the human story; the chants’ elegance and simplicity – sung by the actors themselves – evoke the inter-dwelling of the mundane and the sublime, where the human and divine meet in the recesses of the heart. But above all it’s the long stretches of silence that are the most eloquent, given the sobriety and sacredness of the theme. There is also a pleasing ratio between scenes which parallel episodes from the life of Christ, which I will leave to the viewer to identify. Finally, there is also a pleasing proportion between exterior views of bright landscapes and natural scenery with the dim interior scenes of the monastery, an interplay of visual richness and austerity. This brings to mind the relationship between interiority and exteriority in liturgical experience, and contributes to the film’s abiding sense of reverence.

The third quality, clarity, could be said to shine from the film’s understatement or restraint. It allows characters to make statements that illumine the story without sounding moralizing or preachy. The tension of the drama, as well as the radicality of their own vocation as monks, gives them the credibility to make spiritual insights without didacticism. Brother Luc declares philosophically to his superior, “I’m not scared of death. I am a free man”. Br. Christian’s voice-over of the letter he wrote to his family in Europe is the summit of this kind of radiant speaking. There is a equilibrium between their actual lives and their spiritual statements, their walk and their talk, which permits the film to shine forth in spiritual luminosity. In the final analysis, it is the brightness of the true martyr – the credibility of authentic Christian witness.

All this might help us understand why this film is beautiful. But the final word must be on the reason we might find the “unattractive” beautiful. God entered the world, the philosophers tell us, sub specie contraria (in contrary appearance), in weakness and death, thereby elevating these negatives to the Positive, redeeming what was formerly worthless. Today, then, we can see beauty in all things, even the apparently “ugly”. This is why the Christian can see the face of Christ in the broken and disfigured, and why the cross is held up as perennially exquisite.

If art, as Bernard Lonergan holds, is always “relevant to concrete living” and is “a fundamental element in the freedom of consciousness itself” (because we need perspective to understand our own lives), then Of Gods and Men impels us by its intrinsic beauty to ask how I might change or live my life according to Christian love. And it invites us to follow the Suffering One on his journey up a lonely hill.



Meditation Points
Begin all meditations with the prayer recommended by St. Ignatius. Ask God our Lord for the grace “that all my intentions, actions, and operations may be ordered purely to his service and praise.”

1. Pray on the Last Supper (John 13-17). This is the “farewell discourse” of Jesus. Read the entire discourse, and note any three points or teachings that strike you. When you are finished reading, return to those three points and pray with each of them.
2. Pray on the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26: 36-56).
3. Pray on the Way of the Cross and Calvary (Matt 27: 24-54).

Close each meditation with an “Our Father”.



The text of Fr. Christian's letter:
Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know, I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly. 
I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for the people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism. 
This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. 
My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insha’Allah.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Il Vangelo Secondo San Mateo



Review by John D. O'Brien, S.J.


(The Gospel According to Saint Matthew)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini, 137 min., Italy, 1964.
Starring: Enrique Irazoqui, Margherita Caruso, Susanna Pasolini
Music: Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev, Bacalov, Odetta.

Plot

In the Judean countryside, Jesus begins to preach, attracting disciples and sometimes multitudes. His is stern and demanding: “I have not come to bring peace but the sword”. He is also in a hurry, constantly moving from place to place. His teachings often criticize the powers that be, which attracts the attention of the Pharisees, elders and chief priests. He is arrested, beated, tried and crucified. Afterwards he appears to his disciples and gives them instructions.


Film History

Filmed in the style of Italian neo-realism, which is stark, gritty, and believed that ordinary people, rather than actors, were best suited to play characters (not any character, but the one they were born to play), the film was the creation of Pier Paolo Pasolini, a controversial director who made some 25 films. He was an atheist Marxist, whose personal life was chaotic (and he was murdered in mysterious circumstances), but his film saw the light after he was staying in a hotel room during a conference in Assisi. While there, he found a copy of the Gospels, and “read them straight through.” He would later say that the notion of basing a film on one of them “threw in the shade all the other ideas for work that I had in my head.” The resulting film was nominated for 3 Academy Awards, and won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1964.






Spiritual Reflection

What to make of Pasolini’s telling of the Gospel? This film turns our conventional notions of this story upside down. It avoids melodrama and overacting, but is direct, spare and minimalist. The actors do not look what we imagine the characters to look like (very few beards). Their speech is rendered dispassionately – uncharacteristically for Italians – without animation or expression (mostly). And the pace is somehow different: the camera dwells on faces longer than we are used to, directing our attention to their expressions, to their interiority? At other times the speed of speech is disconcerting. For example, Jesus races through the Sermon on the Mount, so fast you have to pay attention to keep up. The transitions between scenes are also abrupt, as is the unrolling of dramatic action. The angel is suddenly just there. The apostles jump off boats and follow. The leper who was disfigured is instantly healed, with a camera cut to his clean face so sudden it would be comical were it not for a sense the director could have used dramatic special effects, but chose to show the miracle as the Gospel tells it: “and immediately his leprosy was cleansed”. The abruptness continues through the narrative, and includes even the ending. Before we know it, the film is over. Just like that.


By being unconventional, even contrarian, in the style of his story-telling – above all in avoiding the sentimentalism and dramatic sweep of so many other Jesus movies – Pasolini’s film accomplishes a few things very well. First, it reveals the power of the words themselves. Its minimalism allows the words to take over from spectacle. We are not distracted by cinematic “interpretations” on the part of the director or actors (did he get that scene right? That’s not how I imagined that line!). It focuses our attention on the mystery of each scene and the words that capture it. The words of the Gospel are meant to be prominent: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).

So what do we see and hear in this Gospel? That Jesus’ message is not sugar-coated, but a revolutionary call to conversion and discipleship. His exhortations have an urgency about them while he is brimming with a kind of contemplative intensity. He calls people to repentance and to follow him. He preaches a way of life that is demanding – the Beatitudes are beautiful but not an easy recipe for living. He calls out the Pharisees in no uncertain terms. The Lord essentially presents us with a choice: to follow the way of the world and of its captivity to selfishness, or the way of dying to selfishness, and of following him under his banner of love.

This is the primary invitation this week: having examined our past, it’s time to take stock of our present. What is the fundamental choice that God is offering us? To follow Christ will necessarily involve a transformation of how I have been living before. It will include a commitment of life. Do I desire this? Am I attracted, perhaps despite myself, to follow him in a certain way? Do I have the courage to face this invitation? What are the stakes? What could be the losses? What is to be gained? In short, what is Jesus actually asking of me right now?

These are good questions to bring to our prayer this week. To truly enter into them, we can meditate on certain of his scenes and words. Again, no special effects, no overdramatizing is needed. Just words and faces, which in their understatement, hold and convey something far more powerful, more spiritual, and ultimately, more personal.

Pasolini’s film has a basic, rare quality of elemental Jesus to it. But his brand of neo-realism is not careless. There is studied composition of each shot. There is balance in the beautiful black and white chiaroscuro of each frame. There is variety to his cinematography: kinetic, moving camera, wide establishing shots of each new scene, lots of mediums and close-ups. The music is achingly beautiful and even unexpected a few times. He captures the reality of the holy land, though shot in Italy, with everyday images of donkeys, wells, people in the marketplace. Above all, it’s the beauty of the faces to which he returns, again and again.

Jesus’ ministry is a slow crescendo in tone, from a restraint early on to more animated exhortations by the end. His figure remains just beyond our grasp, and perhaps that’s how it should be. He is always more than we can contain and categorize. But is he attractive to us in some deeper way? Again, to what does he invite? This is the question to ask ourselves post-Pasolini.


Meditation Points

1. Imagine the three Persons of the Trinity looking down upon the earth. See the entire span of the world, with people in it of every race and age: some birthing, living and dying. Some at peace, others at war and killing each other; some are laughing, some crying, some healthy, some sick. See it all, and then listen to it all (use your inner eyes and ears). The Trinity sees the direction that humanity is going, and makes the decision to send the Second Person as a human being. In the fullness of time, they send the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth… What is the state of the world today?

2. Read Luke 2:1-14, the nativity. Make a mental representation of the place and enter the scene. Consider a) the persons involved, each in their turn. Be present personally to them, after the birth of Jesus. b) what each of them are saying; c) what they are doing and why they are doing it. What is God doing in all of this?

3. Pray on John 1:35-39 or Matt 4:18-22, the calling of the apostles. Let the scene come alive and consider each phrase in turn. Don’t force your prayer, but be attentive to the word or image that might strike you in particular.  How might God be calling me to discipleship?

Begin all meditations with the prayer recommended by St. Ignatius. Ask God our Lord for the grace “that all my intentions, actions, and operations may be ordered purely to his service and praise.”

And close with an “Our Father”.




Wednesday, September 16, 2015

To the Wonder



By John D. O'Brien, S.J.

Director: Terrence Malick, 112 min., U.SA., 2013.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams

Plot

Neil (Affleck) and Marina (Kurylenko) fall in love in Paris and at Mont St. Michel (called by the French “la merveille” –  the wonder). Marina tells Neil that she will go with him wherever he goes, hinting that she would marry him. Although Neil is noncommittal, they return, with Marina’s young daughter Tatiana, to live in Neil’s home in suburban Oklahoma, where tensions arise in their relationship. There we learn that a Spanish-born priest, Father Quintana (Bardem), is struggling with his faith, while continuing his regular rounds of pastoral ministry. Later, Neil encounters a woman from his past (McAdams). All characters, it becomes clear, are looking for love. Some succeed at penetrating love’s veil, while for others it will remain elusive.

Film History

To the Wonder was reviewed by Roger Ebert, the well-known American film reviewer, in which he wrote: “A more conventional film would have assigned a plot to these characters and made their motivations more clear. Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision.” The film had captivated Ebert, who went on to write that Malick’s work had attempted “to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.” This was Ebert’s last review before his death from cancer in 2013.

Spiritual Reflection

A mere two years after his metaphysically audacious and resplendent film The Tree of Life divided viewers but won the Palme D’Or prize at Cannes and new cohorts of admirers, Terrence Malick made another film – only his sixth in 40 years – called To the Wonder. This time the critics were less effusive, as if one Malick picture per decade was quite enough, the investment of existential effort being too costly. Yet this follow-up is no less grand, and although it is without cosmic creation scenes, it manages to do what few other films can do: cause us to meditate on the questions that matter most. Where The Tree of Life asked about the origins of suffering, and the mysterious interplay of nature and grace, To the Wonder focuses on the human experience and the mystery of love – and where we have fallen short of Love’s invitations.

It begins in France, on the sandy tidal plains surrounding Mont St. Michel, where Neil (Ben Affleck) and a young Frenchwoman, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), have fallen in love and cavort in various poses of embrace and shy discovery. This is love in all its newborn glory, as Marina pays homage in one of the many voiceovers:

You brought me out of the shadows …
You lifted me from the ground.
Brought me back to life.

The presence of the divine seems everywhere, drawing them closer to the “Love that loves us” (again, as Marina says). The scenes shift briefly to Paris, and then suddenly to suburban Oklahoma, where Marina and her daughter have gone to live with Neil. There is contrapuntal contrast between the stately beauty of Europe and the bland superstores, backyards and hydro lines of the new world, but in the hands of Malick, there is no judgment. They are merely settings for the drama that plays out in the interiority of his protagonists.

Things start to go badly in America, as something “is missing” in their relationship. Neil begins to have eyes for a former flame Jane (Rachel McAdams). Marina goes back to Paris. Then things sour between Neil and Jane, and Marina returns, this time without her daughter, who we learn has gone to live with her father. This might seem like a soap opera, were it not for the fact that there is little dialogue, and that themes emerge slowly like forms upon a canvas. We are constantly guessing at what is going on, but because it is mostly interior, we learn to comprehend from the interplay of music, facial expressions, and of the sheer physicality of the players, from whom we learn to read the “language of the body”.  This is Malick at his poetic and impressionistic best.

At the centre of this meditative film is the unspoken problem of sin: there is a serpent in the garden of Neil and Marina’s relationship, an obstacle to full communion. Neil cannot ultimately commit, and is reluctant to have children or marry either woman (except a civil marriage to Marina so that she can get a green card). It is not just the absence of commitment, but his failure to realize that love must go beyond the romance and the beauty that so mesmerizes him, and requires something resembling sacrifice in order to have true depth. Marina wants to embrace this dimension, but Neil, for reasons unclear, does not. He remains aloof, as if wanting to keep his options open, or haunted by some past wounds.

Then there is the priest, Fr. Quintana, played by Javier Bardem, who is going through his own struggles in his vocation with the demands of love. He has lost the zest of his more youthful priesthood. In one voiceover he says plaintively:
“Everywhere you are present. And still I can’t see you. You’re within me. Around me. And I have no experience of you. Not as I once did. Why don’t I hold onto what I‘ve found? My heart is cold. Hard.”
He wanders among the people he serves, prisoners, mentally handicapped, the poor, the meth addicts living on the other side of the tracks, struggling to feel something. He is confused about the apparent absence of God in his life. Yet he is able to preach with power, despite himself. He is the reluctant prophet, and an emptied vessel. For instance, he exhorts his congregation about basic Christian truths, like the necessity of making a choice:
We wish to live inside the safety of the laws. We fear to choose. Jesus insists on choice. The one thing he condemns utterly is avoiding the choice. To choose is to commit yourself. And to commit yourself is to run the risk, is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. But Jesus can deal with all of those. Forgiveness he never denies us. The man who makes a mistake can repent. But the man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talent in the earth, with him he can do nothing.
It is a striking call against the temptation to acedia, the vice of indifferentism that shrugs its shoulders at taking the spiritual life seriously, preferring the apparent safety of mediocrity. Many of the desert fathers and mothers saw acedia as one of the more dangerous temptations. Fr. Quintana is probably reminding himself as much as his parishioners that to accept acedia is a fateful decision. Not to choose is actually a choice.

In many ways this is Malick’s most Catholic film. With it he passes from Heideggerian questioning of the mysteries of Being – as in The Tree of Life – to grappling with the concrete reality of the demands of Love, which for humans is always an incarnate Love. The vocation to love, the universal calling of all people, always has a fleshy, particular quality. We are called to love real people in real life in real time, or we are just living in the ether. And in the final analysis, Christ is to be found in the concrete demands of love.

The way out of their miasma is strongly hinted at, as the film becomes profoundly confessional -- in all the senses. To the strains of Henrik Gorecki’s Symphony #3 (“Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”), Neil bends down on one knee, kisses Marina’s hand and asks for forgiveness. Marina literally goes to confession in another scene, and receives the body and blood of Christ. Fr. Quintana's confession takes the form of a "profession", a declaration of his belief. The human, which has never been so tenderly rendered by Malick, and the divine, come together in a sacramental dialogue and embrace. But even their confessional acts are imperfect, which is why the need for the grace of forgiveness remains constant in their lives.

Amidst the many poetic ruminations of the characters, is a prayer voiced by Fr. Quintana at the end of a climactic sequence of spiritual epiphany. It’s one that had this writer close to tears. Viewers may not know this, but it is both the Lorica or Breastplate of St. Patrick (“Christ before me, Christ behind me…”) and then becomes a prayer that was actually adapted from a prayer written by Cardinal Newman:

Flood our souls with your spirit and life so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of yours. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.

It’s a prayer that acknowledges our creaturely dependence on God. It is, therefore, a humble prayer. It’s the same prayer recited daily my Mother Teresa’s sisters. It also expresses the yearning to see the Beauty, ever ancient, ever new, which will ultimately fulfill the hunger of our souls. It’s what Neil and Marina are ultimately looking for.


Meditation Points 

In the “first week” of the Spiritual Exercises, we ask God to “transform what was deformed”, that is, to seek to comprehend the unconditional love of God, and recognize our failure to respond to it. The grace to pray for, then, is knowledge of my relationship with God and sorrow for my sins – which are always a turning from God. Each point can be prayed on a separate day.

Read Genesis 2:15-3:25, the account of Adam and Eve in the garden. What was God’s original plan? What did our first parents do? Reflect on my own life and see parallel ways in which I have or have not responded to God’s plan.

Read I Cor 13:1-7 on in what consists love. Where have I experienced the freedom of this kind of love in my life? How have I lived or not lived my vocation to love?

Read Luke 15:11-32, the account of the Prodigal Son. How have I lived or not lived my vocation to sonship or daughtership of God? What is the father’s reaction to son’s return?

Begin all meditations this week with the Newman prayer cited above & close with an Our Father.




Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Millions




By John D. O'Brien, S.J.

Director: Danny Boyle, 98 min., U.K., 2004.
Starring: Alex Etel, James Nesbitt, Daisy Donovan

Plot

The UK is about to switch its currency from Pounds to Euros, giving some criminals a chance to rob a train loaded with banknotes destined for incineration. During the robbery, one of the bags falls onto playhouse belonging to Damian, a young boy who talks to saints. Damian then starts seeing what the world and the people around him are made of. Ethics, being human, and the soul all come to the forefront in this film. It asks us to consider our basic interior dispositions as we enter into our own film-based spiritual journey this Fall.

Film History

Premiered at TIFF. Won a number of film awards, including “Best Screenplay” at the British Independent Film Awards. Proved that Danny Boyle cannot be pigeon-holed as a director. He has made compelling films about Scottish heroin addicts (Trainspotting), mad zombies (28 Days Later), and a game-show contestant in Mumbai (Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire). But Millions comes from the heart, and goes in a tender, spiritual direction that surpasses them all.

Spiritual Reflection
Anthony: What did you bring a thousand pounds to school for? Can't you see that's suspicious?
Damian: It's not suspicious, it's unusual.
Catherine Doherty once said: “Lord, give me the heart of a child, and the awesome courage to live it out as an adult.”

What does it mean to have “the heart of a child”? It’s a question that vexed Nicodemus after Jesus said “Nobody can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” Obviously, we can’t re-enter our mothers’ wombs. But there is something inside all of us that yearns for some of the dispositions, that is, the interior attitudes and states of being of our childhood, long before we become anxious, informed, and ironic adults. At the same time we are probably not eager to return to many childish ways. So in what sense are we to recover “the heart of a child” without losing the proper maturity into which we have grown?

The film Millions manages to capture some of the traits that this “rebirth” is pointing to, and these are especially important to consider at the dawn of a “film-retreat”.  At the beginning of his retreat manual, the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola makes the following point: “It will be very profitable for the one who is to go through the Exercises to enter upon them with magnanimity (bigheartedness) and generosity toward his Creator and Lord.” He goes on to encourage the retreatant to “offer God his entire will and liberty, that His Divine Majesty may dispose of him and all he possesses according to His most holy will.” There was no soft-pedaling around a spiritual parkland with St. Ignatius. He wanted everyone to encounter the living God and, like so many of Jesus’ encounters in the Gospels, to be transformed by that encounter.

So how do we have “magnaminity” and “generosity”, and offer to God our will and freedom? Even this self-offering is a grace, but we can dispose ourselves to receiving the grace by cultivating certain interior attitudes in ourselves. There are three qualities that the main character in Millions, 9-year old Damian, seems to have in a particularly generous dose. They aren’t his only qualities, and nor is he a perfect saint, but they are spiritually foundational, important dispositions: his guilelessness (authenticity), his compassion, and his trust. Let’s consider in of these in turn, and see how cultivating these attitudes in ourselves will serve us well, as we prepare to dispose ourselves to the graces we hope to receive from this year’s “Finding God in the Dark” film series.

Damian believes it is his mission to use the bag of cash for good, and here we see a certain authenticity of soul. We might recall what the Lord said about his soon-to-be-called disciple Nathanael as he was walking toward him: “Behold, indeed, an Israelite in whom there is no guile” (John 1:47). Some translations also say no “duplicity” or “deceit”.  The point is that to be a “true Israelite”, which meant to be a follower of the one true God, you were someone who did not live according to double-standards, or harbour hidden agendas, but basically lived in the light (“in truth”). You practiced no double-speak, no withering sarcasm, and no passive-aggressivity. Your yes meant yes and your no meant no. You wept when you were sad and you laughed when you were happy. This is the meaning of guilelessness. There is a purity about one’s conduct and speech. Children are often adorable because of their guilelessness. We know that with them “what we see is what we get”.  Because they haven’t learned to conceal their thoughts and feelings, they are something of an open book when it comes to their inner life, and most of time, we find this refreshing (of course at other times, like during emotional meltdowns, less so). Often, the great enterprise of spiritual direction is simply about getting help in recovering our child-like transparency and freedom, to be “re-born” as it were.

Needless to say, one cannot merely go about saying whatever pops into our heads. Being a blabber-mouth is not true guilelessness or transparency in the Christian sense. In fact, we would quickly lose friends if we spoke without filters. Our thoughts and words, while having a healthy spontaneity, should also be governed by something objective, something other than ourselves. In Damian, we see this second quality at work: he is compassionate, thoughtfully so. His charity rules his spontaneity. He’s a kind-hearted kid, who wants to use his windfall to help others. Children seem to have a natural compassion, whether it’s tears over an injured animal or for a fellow child who is upset. They tend to feel the pain of others in ways that many adults have lost touch with, due to the hardening we accrue from self-protection and personal sin. This, too, is the “heart of a child” that we aspire to recover.

The third disposition is the attitude of trust. This perhaps is the most important disposition of all. In almost all the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracles and healings, he calls out this aspect of the person, afterwards saying things like: “Go, your faith has saved you.” It’s this “fundamental” that the Lord asks of everyone he meets. In fact, he can do no wonders in their midst, if they lack it. Before embarking on a spiritual journey, then, we need to have, at a minimum, the conviction that God is good and is therefore worthy of our trust. Unfortunately, many people are afraid of God – and not in the holy sense of fear (“reverence”), but an unholy fear that translates into fearful avoidance. But God is good and worthy of our trust. Thérèse of Lisieux, a doctor of the Church, wrote in her autobiography that: “Sanctity does not consist in these or those exercises and achievements; it consists in a disposition of the heart which allows us to remain small and humble in the arms of God, knowing our weakness and trusting to the point of rashness in his Fatherly goodness.”

Trusting to the point of rashness in his Fatherly goodness. It’s the basis of the spiritual life, the one thing necessary. Damian never loses his belief that God is good, and that people are also good. He is guileless (transparent), compassionate (charitable), and trusting (faith-full). As we contemplate the overall character of this film, it will prompt us to prayerfully reflect on our own lives, our own character. In the weeks to come, you are invited to take these reflections home and pray over the meditation points at the end, perhaps staying with just one point per day. When you pray, read the passage then use your spiritual imagination and re-create the scenes. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you sense? What insights do you receive? Journal these afterwards if that is helpful to you.

May we pray with the intention of disposing ourselves to becoming more receptive to the graces the good God wishes to give us during the films to come. And while we may find God in the dark, it is certain that God will find us there.

Meditation Points

  1. Consider the passage of John 1:43-51. In what areas of my life do I experience the freedom of guilelessness that Jesus is referring to when he sees Nathanael coming towards him?
  2. In John’s epistle the author writes that “God is love”. Read John 4:7-12, and reflect on the essentially compassionate nature of God. How do I dispose myself to love God by loving others in my life? 
  3. Read Mark 5:25-34, the story of the woman healed of her flow of blood. In what does Jesus say consists the healing? Where are my growth-points in “trusting to the point of rashness in his Fatherly goodness”?


Begin all meditations with the prayer of Catherine Doherty: “Lord, give me the heart of a child, and the awesome courage to live it out as an adult.”

And close with an “Our Father”.




Friday, August 28, 2015

The Day Immanuel Kant Was Late

Millions
Director: Danny Boyle, 98 min., U.K., 2004.
Starring: Alex Etel, James Nesbitt, Daisy Donovan

Plot
The UK is about to switch its currency from Pounds to Euros, giving some criminals a chance to rob a train loaded with banknotes destined for incineration. During the robbery, one of the bags falls onto playhouse belonging to Damian, a young boy who talks to saints. Damian then starts seeing what the world and the people around him are made of. Ethics, being human, and the soul all come to the forefront in this film. It asks us to consider our basic interior dispositions as we enter into our own film-based spiritual journey this Fall.

Film History
Premiered at TIFF. Won a number of film awards, including “Best Screenplay” at the British Independent Film Awards. Proved that Danny Boyle cannot be pigeon-holed as a director. He has made compelling films about Scottish heroin addicts (Trainspotting), zombies (28 Days Later), and a game-show contestant in Mumbai (Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire). But Millions comes from the heart, and goes in a tender, spiritual direction that surpasses them all.

Spiritual Reflection
Anthony: What did you bring a thousand pounds to school for? Can't you see that's suspicious?
Damian: It's not suspicious, it's unusual.

Catherine Doherty once said: “Lord, give me the heart of a child, and the awesome courage to live it out as an adult.”
What does it mean to have “the heart of a child”? It’s a question that vexed Nicodemus after Jesus said “Nobody can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” Obviously, we can’t re-enter our mothers’ wombs. But there is something inside all of us that yearns for some of the dispositions, that is, the interior attitudes and states of being of our childhood, long before we become anxious, informed, and ironic adults. At the same time we are probably not eager to return to many childish ways. So in what sense are we to recover “the heart of a child” without losing the proper maturity into which we have grown?
The film Millions manages to capture some of the traits that this “rebirth” is pointing to, and these are especially important to consider at the dawn of a “film-retreat”. At the beginning of his retreat manual, the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola makes the following point: “It will be very profitable for the one who is to go through the Exercises to enter upon them with magnanimity (bigheartedness) and generosity toward his Creator and Lord.” He goes on to encourage the retreatant to “offer God his entire will and liberty, that His Divine Majesty may dispose of him and all he possesses according to His most holy will.” There was no soft-pedaling around a spiritual parkland with St. Ignatius. He wanted everyone to encounter the living God and, like so many of Jesus’ encounters in the Gospels, to be transformed by that encounter.
So how do we have “magnaminity” and “generosity”, and offer to God our will and freedom? Even this self-offering is a grace, but we can dispose ourselves to receiving the grace by cultivating certain interior attitudes in ourselves. There are three qualities that the main character in Millions, 9-year old Damian, seems to have in a particularly generous dose. They aren’t his only qualities, and nor is he a perfect saint, but they are spiritually foundational, important dispositions: his guilelessness (authenticity), his compassion, and his trust. Let’s consider in of these in turn, and see how cultivating these attitudes in ourselves will serve us well, as we prepare to dispose ourselves to the graces we hope to receive from this year’s “Finding God in the Dark” film series.
Damian believes it is his mission to use the bag of cash for good, and here we see a certain authenticity of soul. We might recall what the Lord said about his soon-to-be-called disciple Nathanael as he was walking toward him: “Behold, indeed, an Israelite in whom there is no guile” (John 1:47). Some translations also say no “duplicity” or “deceit”. The point is that to be a “true Israelite”, which meant to be a follower of the one true God, you were someone who did not live according to double-standards, or harbour hidden agendas, but basically lived in the light (“in truth”). You practiced no double-speak, no withering sarcasm, and no passive-aggressivity. Your yes meant yes and your no meant no. You wept when you were sad and you laughed when you were happy. This is the meaning of guilelessness. There is a purity about one’s conduct and speech. Children are often adorable because of their guilelessness. We know that with them “what we see is what we get”. Because they haven’t learned to conceal their thoughts and feelings, they are something of an open book when it comes to their inner life, and most of time, we find this refreshing (of course at other times, like during emotional meltdowns, less so). Often, the great enterprise of spiritual direction is simply about getting help in recovering our child-like transparency and freedom, to be “re-born” as it were.
Needless to say, one cannot merely go about saying whatever pops into our heads. Being a blabber-mouth is not true guilelessness or transparency in the Christian sense. In fact, we would quickly lose friends if we spoke without filters. Our thoughts and words, while having a healthy spontaneity, should also be governed by something objective, something other than ourselves. In Damian, we see this second quality at work: he is compassionate, thoughtfully so. His charity rules his spontaneity. He’s a kind-hearted kid, who wants to use his windfall to help others. Children seem to have a natural compassion, whether it’s tears over an injured animal or for a fellow child who is upset. They tend to feel the pain of others in ways that many adults have lost touch with, due to the hardening we accrue from self-protection and personal sin. This, too, is the “heart of a child” that we aspire to recover.
The third disposition is the attitude of trust. This perhaps is the most important disposition of all. In almost all the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracles and healings, he calls out this aspect of the person, afterwards saying things like: “Go, your faith has saved you.” It’s this “fundamental” that the Lord asks of everyone he meets. In fact, he can do no wonders in their midst, if they lack it. Before embarking on a spiritual journey, then, we need to have, at a minimum, the conviction that God is good and is therefore worthy of our trust. Unfortunately, many people are afraid of God – and not in the holy sense of fear (“reverence”), but an unholy fear that translates into fearful avoidance. But God is good and worthy of our trust. Thérèse of Lisieux, a doctor of the Church, wrote in her autobiography that: “Sanctity does not consist in these or those exercises and achievements; it consists in a disposition of the heart which allows us to remain small and humble in the arms of God, knowing our weakness and trusting to the point of rashness in his Fatherly goodness.”
Trusting to the point of rashness in his Fatherly goodness. It’s the basis of the spiritual life, the one thing necessary. Damian never loses his belief that God is good, and that people are also good. He is guileless (transparent), compassionate (charitable), and trusting (faith-full). As we contemplate the overall character of this film, it will prompt us to prayerfully reflect on our own lives, our own character. In the weeks to come, you are invited to take these reflections home and pray over the meditation points at the end, perhaps staying with just one point per day. When you pray, read the passage then use your spiritual imagination and re-create the scenes. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you sense? What insights do you receive? Journal these afterwards if that is helpful to you.
May we pray with the intention of disposing ourselves to becoming more receptive to the graces the good God wishes to give us during the films to come. And while we may find God in the dark, it is certain that God will find us there.

Meditation Points
1. Consider the passage of John 1:43-51. In what areas of my life do I experience the freedom of guilelessness that Jesus is referring to when he sees Nathanael coming towards him?
2. In John’s epistle the author writes that “God is love”. Read John 4:7-12, and reflect on the essentially compassionate nature of God. How do I dispose myself to love God by loving others in my life?
3. Read Mark 5:25-34, the story of the woman healed of her flow of blood. In what does Jesus say consists the healing? Where are my growth-points in “trusting to the point of rashness in his Fatherly goodness”?

Begin all meditations with the prayer of Catherine Doherty: “Lord, give me the heart of a child, and the awesome courage to live it out as an adult.”

And close with an “Our Father”.

The reflections from Finding God in the Dark film series are posted at the blog Veritas Liberabit: johnobrien.blogspot.ca

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Lord of the World revisited for Holy Week

By John O'Brien, S.J.

Many in the media have noticed that Pope Francis has, on several occasions, referred of a novel which he recommends to readers across the globe. It might be considered a strange choice for a pope whose public image is that of a progressivist who is shattering traditions and heralding a bright new world future. The book is a 1907 futuristic apocalypse by Robert Hugh Benson called Lord of the World. Some have called it prophetic in its portrayal of a dystopian post-modern future. My father has cited it as a major influence on his own Children of the Last Days novels. Others, such as journalist John Allen, Jr., have speculated that this endorsement may indicate the Holy Father is thinking that his own time might be short.




I am not going to review the novel here, but rather quote a remarkable selection from its third chapter. The passage describes an experience that its protagonist, the English priest Percy Franklin, has when he enters into prayer as storm clouds gather around the world. It makes for good reading as Holy Week begins and our own liturgical and mystical summit approaches. It's worth reading in full:

Percy stood motionless until he heard the automatic bell outside tell him that Father Francis was really gone, then he went out himself and turned towards the long passage leading to the Cathedral. As he passed out through the sacristy he heard far in front the murmur of an organ, and on coming through into the chapel used as a parish church he perceived that Vespers were not yet over in the great choir. He came straight down the aisle, turned to the right, crossed the centre and knelt down. 
It was drawing on towards sunset, and the huge dark place was lighted here and there by patches of ruddy London light that lay on the gorgeous marble and gildings finished at last by a wealthy convert. In front of him rose up the choir, with a line of white surpliced and furred canons on either side, and the vast baldachino in the midst, beneath which burned the six lights as they had burned day by day for more than a century; behind that again lay the high line of the apse-choir with the dim, window-pierced vault above where Christ reigned in majesty. He let his eyes wander round for a few moments before beginning his deliberate prayer, drinking in the glory of the place, listening to the thunderous chorus, the peal of the organ, and the thin mellow voice of the priest. There on the left shone the refracted glow of the lamps that burned before the Lord in the Sacrament, on the right a dozen candles winked here and there at the foot of the gaunt images, high overhead hung the gigantic cross with that lean, emaciated Poor Man Who called all who looked on Him to the embraces of a God. 
Then he hid his face in his hands, drew a couple of long breaths, and set to work. 
He began, as his custom was in mental prayer, by a deliberate act of self-exclusion from the world of sense. Under the image of sinking beneath a surface he forced himself downwards and inwards, till the peal of the organ, the shuffle of footsteps, the rigidity of the chair-back beneath his wrists--all seemed apart and external, and he was left a single person with a beating heart, an intellect that suggested image after image, and emotions that were too languid to stir themselves. Then he made his second descent, renounced all that he possessed and was, and became conscious that even the body was left behind, and that his mind and heart, awed by the Presence in which they found themselves, clung close and obedient to the will which was their lord and protector. He drew another long breath, or two, as he felt that Presence surge about him; he repeated a few mechanical words, and sank to that peace which follows the relinquishment of thought. 
There he rested for a while. Far above him sounded the ecstatic music, the cry of trumpets and the shrilling of the flutes; but they were as insignificant street-noises to one who was falling asleep. He was within the veil of things now, beyond the barriers of sense and reflection, in that secret place to which he had learned the road by endless effort, in that strange region where realities are evident, where perceptions go to and fro with the swiftness of light, where the swaying will catches now this, now that act, moulds it and speeds it; where all things meet, where truth is known and handled and tasted, where God Immanent is one with God Transcendent, where the meaning of the external world is evident through its inner side, and the Church and its mysteries are seen from within a haze of glory. 
So he lay a few moments, absorbing and resting. 
Then he aroused himself to consciousness and began to speak. 
"Lord, I am here, and Thou art here. I know Thee. There is nothing else but Thou and I.... I lay this all in Thy hands--Thy apostate priest, Thy people, the world, and myself. I spread it before Thee--I spread it before Thee." 
He paused, poised in the act, till all of which he thought lay like a plain before a peak.
... "Myself, Lord -- there but for Thy grace should I be going, in darkness and misery. It is Thou Who dost preserve me. Maintain and finish Thy work within my soul. Let me not falter for one instant. If thou withdraw Thy hand I fall into utter nothingness."
So his soul stood a moment, with outstretched appealing hands, helpless and confident. Then the will flickered in self-consciousness, and he repeated acts of faith, hope and love to steady it. Then he drew another long breath, feeling the Presence tingle and shake about him, and began again. 
"Lord; look on Thy people. Many are falling from Thee.  Ne in aeternumirascaris nobis. Ne in aeternum irascaris nobis .... I unite myself with all saints and angels and Mary Queen of Heaven; look on them and me, and hear us. Emitte lucem tuam et veritatem tuam. Thy light and Thy truth! Lay not on us heavier burdens than we can bear. Lord, why dost Thou not speak!" 
He writhed himself forward in a passion of expectant desire, hearing his muscles crack in the effort. Once more he relaxed himself; and the swift play of wordless acts began which he knew to be the very heart of prayer. The eyes of his soul flew hither and thither, from Calvary to heaven and back again to the tossing troubled earth. He saw Christ dying of desolation while the earth rocked and groaned; Christ reigning as a priest upon His Throne in robes of light, Christ patient and inexorably silent within the Sacramental species; and to each in turn he directed the eyes of the Eternal Father.... 
Then he waited for communications, and they came, so soft and delicate, passing like shadows, that his will sweated blood and tears in the effort to catch and fix them and correspond.... 
He saw the Body Mystical in its agony, strained over the world as on a cross, silent with pain; he saw this and that nerve wrenched and twisted, till pain presented it to himself as under the guise of flashes of colour; he saw the life-blood drop by drop run down from His head and hands and feet. The world was gathered mocking and good-humoured beneath. "He saved others: Himself He cannot save.... Let Christ come down from the Cross and we will believe." Far away behind bushes and in holes of the ground the friends of Jesus peeped and sobbed; Mary herself was silent, pierced by seven swords; the disciple whom He loved had no words of comfort. 
He saw, too, how no word would be spoken from heaven; the angels themselves were bidden to put sword into sheath, and wait on the eternal patience of God, for the agony was hardly yet begun; there were a thousand horrors yet before the end could come, that final sum of crucifixion.... He must wait and watch, content to stand there and do nothing; and the Resurrection must seem to him no more than a dreamed-of hope. There was the Sabbath yet to come, while the Body Mystical must lie in its sepulchre cut off from light, and even the dignity of the Cross must be withdrawn and the knowledge that Jesus lived. That inner world, to which by long effort he had learned the way, was all alight with agony; it was bitter as brine, it was of that pale luminosity that is the utmost product of pain, it hummed in his ears with a note that rose to a scream ... it pressed upon him, penetrated him, stretched him as on a rack.... And with that his will grew sick and nerveless.
"Lord! I cannot bear it!" he moaned... 
In an instant he was back again, drawing long breaths of misery. He passed his tongue over his lips, and opened his eyes on the darkening apse before him. The organ was silent now, and the choir was gone, and the lights out. The sunset colour, too, had faded from the walls, and grim cold faces looked down on him from wall and vault. He was back again on the surface of life; the vision had melted; he scarcely knew what it was that he had seen.

- From Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World (1907)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Tree of Life

By John O'Brien, S.J.




2011. Director: Terrence Malick, 139 min. U.S.A.
Stars: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn
Music: makes use of many different classical and operatic pieces.

Plot
An impressionistic portrait of a young family in Waco, Texas in 1956, in which the eldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken) struggles with his loss of innocence and coming to terms with two “ways” in life: the way of “grace”, represented by his luminous mother, Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) and the way of “nature”, the win-at-all-costs philosophy represented by his father (Brad Pitt). There is a flash-forward to 1968, when his mother receives a telegram telling of the death of her other son (presumably in Vietnam), and a flash-forward to present day, where we see an adult Jack (Sean Penn) grapple with the memories of his childhood and the legacy of his choices; and to scenes at a mysterious seashore in an eschatological future, where the child and adult Jack interact with his parents, and where we sense the reconciliation of all things awaits.

A visually resplendent film, which asks core existential questions, and audaciously includes a lengthy cosmic creation scene, provoking the viewer to begin asking the same questions as Malick is asking.

Film History
Winner of the Palme d’Or Prize, the highest award for a film, at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Nominated for 3 Academy Awards in 2012, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography.

Spiritual Reflection
To understand The Tree of Life it helps to know that director Terrence Malick has created a film in the apocalyptic genre, especially as the term was understood by earlier generations of Christians. An “apocalypse” is not so much concerned about depicting the events of the literal end of time. Rather it is concerned with the breaking through of the eternal into the temporal, of the spiritual into the material, and of the ultimate meaning of all things, which yes, will be fully revealed at the end of time, but which is also present in the “here and now”. Since the paradox of “already and not yet” informs our understanding of the redemption of creation, we see that there are multiple layers of meaning to this story.

Malick has grappled with the question of “nature” in his films before, and it’s an issue that resonates with us moderns, who also struggle with understanding the cosmos we live in. On the one hand for Malick, nature is the realm of tranquility, beauty, and wonder, almost the habitation of the divine. At the same time it has a Darwinian dimension, especially manifest in the destructive encroachments of human beings. He asks plaintively, where does all this achingly beautiful glory come from? And at the same time, why this eruption of violence and cruelty?

He poses the question in a sort of binary way in The Tree of Life, through the voice of the mother: “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.” Yet, as the film reveals, these are not necessarily two separate and irreconcilable paths. There is never any paths of “pure nature”, nor any “pure grace”, but the two work together, as Thomas Aquinas said: “Gratia non tollit, sed perficit naturam”. Grace does not destroy or negate the laws of the natural world. Rather, grace sanctifies, renews, ennobles and elevates nature. In the film, however, “nature” is short-hand for the world without God, a world that fights on its own strength and laws alone, and “grace” means that same world, transformed by God’s love.

As to the other question – from where comes the evil in the world? – it’s an age-old philosophical (and personal) question, and there are no easy answers. Indeed the question of “theodicy” – how can a good God let evil things happen – remains a valid question probably until the end of time. The great poets and saints, artists and writers are the ones who help us come to terms with it, to catch glimpses of the meaning behind suffering. Malick’s film deserves to be in their august company. He builds upon the tradition of the wisdom literature, with a particular allusion to Job at the start of the film. On a black slide we see the words:

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” – Job 38:4,7

With this God is posing a question, but it’s also an answer to a previous question from Job. Job has been stripped of everything he owned, his children killed and his body riddled with disease. His accusers invite him to curse the God that he loves or admit that it’s due to a sin that he did not commit in order to make sense of the situation. He posed the question "why?" to God, and God responded with his own unexpected, greater question, one that will burst all bounds. God does not wish to give a purely conceptual answer to Job's question, but invites him to view the larger context in which the problem can be seen. Just as it is hard for us to understand God's response to Job, it may not be easy for us to understand Malick’s depiction. There is much meaning that can only be unpacked and decoded over time. We see through mirrors dimly. But God would have us know that his ultimate plan was one that had music and great joy.



Another hermeneutic hint comes in the very first image of the film: there we see a mysterious, flame-like orb of light, and we hear the voice of the adult Jack whisper:
“Brother, Mother, it was they who led me to your door.” 
If he is addressing his brother and mother, who are the “they” that led him and to what door? We see the orb of light standing at the origin of the “creation of the world” and reappears again at the very end as the final image in the film. If this flame of light represents the Alpha and the Omega, then it's seems probable Jack is not addressing his brother and mother, but is praying to God, saying that his brother and his mother were the ones who led him to the threshold of heaven. Since most of the film is a reflection by the adult Jack upon his family, and the role that grace and loss has played in his life, this interpretation makes sense, and then turns the entire film into Jack's prayer. It is Jack we see at the film's end, taking the elevator down from his glass and steel tower, through a door in the wilderness, and onto the shore of timelessness.

The Tree of Life divided critics. It’s overwhelming. It’s sometimes confusing. But Terrence Malick at least had the audacity to ask the most important questions of all, and put them in a film that would startle and provoke his audience. It does not offer cheap answers, but points, I believe, to the source of all knowing, the living Light that shines from the beginning and will continue until the end which is not an end.


Questions
1) I am born with a “nature” and all my natural faculties. How has grace been operative from “within” my nature, to elevate and sanctify me?

2) The mystery of suffering is never too far from human life. How does Malick offer the glimmers of a response to the question of why a good God could allow suffering? Does he have an answer?

3) The final scenes of the film take place on a mysterious shore. What is this place?



Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Review: Calvary

By John O'Brien, S.J.



2014. Director: John Michael McDonaugh, 102 min. Ireland/U.K.
Stars: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Marie-Josée Croze
Music: Patrick Cassidy

Plot
A mysterious man tells Father James (Brendan Gleeson) in the confessional that he was once abused by a priest and is going to kill him in one week’s time because he is a good priest. Although he continues to reach out to members of his parish in small-town Ireland, with their various scurrilous moral problems, and comfort Fiona (Kelly Reilly), his fragile daughter from an earlier marriage, the week goes by quickly, and he feels sinister and troubling forces closing in. He begins to wonder if he will have the strength to face his own personal Calvary.

Film History
Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin Film Festival. Brendan Gleeson won Best Actor at the British Independent Film awards in 2014, and the film also took most of the major awards at the Irish Film and Television awards. Calvary also appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival in August 2014.

Spiritual Reflection
Calvary, like its namesake mountain, is equal parts inspiration and desolation. The film manages to show both what a priest should be like and the horror of clerical abuse, the scandals that along with post-modern indifferentism, have left Ireland a rather bleak spiritual landscape. It is not an easy film to watch, and it will stick in your gut long after you have seen it. Only a great movie manages to do that. But why should we be interested in a movie like this?

Well it is Lent, and with Holy Week approaching, considering the spiritual state of the world, and perhaps the landscape of our own souls, is a worthwhile enterprise. Sometimes we look at stories that depict the grimness of depravity to appreciate the glory of the redemption. Indeed, at first glance there is little vindication in this film. But it is celebrated for a reason: a redemptive threads run subtly throughout this sordid conflict; the darkness highlights the presence-points of light. Let’s consider a few of them, and how they apply to our own lives.
First, Father James is a priest who, despite his personal flaws (and he is no Bing Crosby padre), genuinely cares for the people of his parish: he meets a cuckolded butcher who may have beaten his cheating wife, he confronts the wife and her so-called boyfriend, he rows out to the island of an American writer who needs company, and he puts up with the sneers and insults of the local bartender, a wisecracking male prostitute, an atheist doctor, and a pompous, degenerative rich man. This is a priest who, as Pope Francis has promoted, “has the smell of his sheep”, even if these sheep have an odor that is particularly ripe. If it’s not pastoral love that drives Father James, there is nothing else that could motivate a man to minister to this motley group. He is an icon of the Good Shepherd, the father of the prodigal son, even though the sons and daughters here remain largely unrepentant.
The level of cynicism on the part of the characters in the town is chilling. Although laced with occasional droplets of dark Irish humour, this fictional parish is more like a gathering in Dante’s Inferno, peopled with characters better suited to a dark and tragic morality play. If Father James is supposed to represent Christ to them, then he is the Christ of Pilate’s praetorium or of the via crucis, stumbling towards Golgotha amid the taunts and jeers of the crowd.

“Suffering,” the French Jesuit theologian Jean Danielou once wrote, “is the only meeting point between good and evil, and the only chance for the evil ones to be saved by the innocent.” The crosses that Father James bears in this story, will bear fruit, indeed are already bearing fruit, but only hinted at obliquely in the lives of the village people. He must follow his Master on the way of the cross in order to redeem the particularly lost. His relentless presence, sometimes admonishing, sometimes consoling, will have its effect, though he may not live to see it.
Yet he is not completely alone in this arduous pastoral quest. Despite the crassness of the people, there are two women who stand out as lights of consolation: his daughter, Fiona, who has not been emotionally well since the death of his wife several years before, but has sought him out from London. Their conversations throughout the week show a growing level of forgiveness and healing between father and daughter, a reconciliation that will have an important effect at the film’s end. The other is a Frenchwomen named Teresa (played by Canadian actress Marie-Josée Croze), who has just lost her husband in a car accident, yet has a strong enough faith to grieve with inner freedom. She gives one of the most poignant lines in the film, illustrating, perhaps, the key to her own interior peace:
Father James Lavelle: He was a good man, your husband?
Teresa: Yes. He was a good man. We had a very good life together. We loved each other very much. And now... he has gone. And that is not unfair. That is just what happened. But many people don't live good lives. They don't feel love. That is why it's unfair. I feel sorry for them.

Her attitude, at once one of grief and of fundamental gratefulness, allows her to see the world with eyes of compassion, so that her only sorrow is for the plight of the loveless. In that moment, she is unwittingly encouraging him to stay the long course of pastoral love.
Martyrdom is back in the news these days. After the recent execution of 21 Egyptian Christians by ISIS in Libya, a Coptic bishop told CNN that the only option for them was forgiveness. He said it in these words: “We don't forgive the act because the act is heinous. But we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.”
This is the cycle that forgiveness shatters. Father James is an innocent victim, and his would-be killer, although wrong to take vengeance in this way, is also the victim of an awful violation. He does not have to pay forward the violence; there are other roads to healing, so he is not absolved from what he does. Moreover, Father James does not know if he will die on Sunday. Like Christ in Gethsemane, he does not even want this “martyrdom”. He is a lamb of sacrifice.
Perhaps the real word that Calvary offers us is that God does not hold back on pursuing us to the darkest and bitterest end. It shows how sacrifice may be required of us, too, for the restoration of things to their original wholeness. In this way desolation turns to inspiration. Some things can only be won back by grace – and no cheap grace at that. Then Calvary rises only within the larger horizon of resurrection, and becomes a living word of mercy.


Questions
1) When have I experienced forgiveness in my life? Remember this event for a while, and be grateful.
2) Where have I seen sacrifice in my life turn around a sequence of sin or of violence? Consider this act, and be grateful.
3) Has God asked me to examine my own participation in cycles of sin? How might I be called to forgive someone, to sacrifice something, or to make an act of reparation that will help restore what has been wronged, healed what has been damaged?