Friday, August 28, 2015

The Day Immanuel Kant Was Late

Reviewed by John O'Brien, S.J.

Rarely has short-story reading provided me with such enjoyment. Mulrooney's fables are alternately tender, bizarre, whimsical and stark, but each in their own way providing a glimpse into a deeper truth about human person. The collection of fourteen stories is divided into four sections: Philosophical Fables, Pious Tales, Graceless Tales, and Family Stories. These are not bedtime fairy-tales for children, but are more like Brothers Grimm meeting Flannery O'Connor in a wayside inn. One has to think after each story to identify a "truth", since in themselves they do not moralize; but they delight and provoke.

One must first commend the author for the command of his craft. He has a poet's ear for turn of phrase and economy of composition. He is unpredictable, and each story is completely different from the one before it. There is a "holy madness" about his tale-spinning, a wild creativity that is restrained only by his attention to a writer's discipline. From this pressure comes the diamond-like sheen of his stories.

Readers will meet a flower waiting for a bee to pollinate her so that she can die (with mildly provocative innuendo that she is a flower-prostitute, but one displaying a kenotic willingness to be dispossessed); a high-achiever whose brilliance is straw in the final analysis; a narcissistic young man who in a psychedelic reverie, defecates his heart into the toilet (easily the most grotesque); the original story of how dogs and horses came to serve Man, the night a devil made his confession to a popular priest, and so on.

There is wicked satire in these pages, along with a subtle tenderness for the human condition, and not infrequently, laugh-out loud hilarity. Mulrooney is apparently writing a novel at the moment. I will be sure to read it when it comes out.

An extract from "The Devil's Confession":

By all reckoning, Fr John was a happy priest. He was not even thirty-four years old and he had his own church. The parish was reasonably well-off and stable. Unlike many of his older colleagues, he was comfortable with the casual way people took one another nowadays, so that he was not fazed when people came to church in jeans, or took God's name in vain, or when they lived together without being wed. At the same time, was able to make it lear that neither he nor the Church approved such things. He managed to be both orthodox and humorous, to hate the sin and love the sinner, so that the older parishioners looked on him as a dutiful son and the young people looked up to him as an older brother. He had been very successful in convincing people to stay and believe in the Church. Even his bishop liked him because every year he managed to raise as much money as parishes much larger than his. 
But Fr John was not all happy. Drinking was not his problem -- although he recognized it could become one and was careful about it. Nor was lack of faith. In an age when so many could not even conceive of God, Fr John was blessed with a constant sure knowledge of his presence. His problem was the dreamlike quality of his life, the sense that nothing he did was important, that he was superfluous to the comfortable world around him. Everything had been so pleasant and easy that he felt as if he was missing something. He had spent a six months in a monastery where the old monks had spoken of life as the Way of the Cross: "Even as our Lord suffered for his flock, so every Christian suffers for Christ." But the Way of the Cross was not a Way Fr John was familiar with. Sometimes at night he felt the desire to find pain simply to remind himself that he was alive, and he would punch the doorframe in the rectory or bite his own shoulder as he lay in bed.

The Day Immanuel Kant was Late can be purchased at or 

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.

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.

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

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.

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?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: The Incredibles

By John O'Brien, S.J.

2004. Director: Brad Bird (animated). 115 min.
Music: Michael Giacchino

Bob Parr (a.k.a. Mr. Incredible), and his wife Helen (a.k.a. Elastigirl), are famous crime-fighting superheroes in Metroville, saving lives and battling evil on a daily basis. But after the civilian population begins to resent their overachieving antics, they have been forced to adopt civilian identities and retreat to the suburbs where, 15 years later, they live a "normal life" with their three children Violet, Dash and baby Jack-Jack. Itching to get back into action, Bob gets his chance when a mysterious message summons him to a remote island for a secret assignment. He soon discovers that it will take a super family effort to rescue the world from total destruction. 

In Film History 
The Incredibles is part of the Pixar juggernaut of uber-successful animated films that towered over Disney (until being bought by The Mouse in 2006), titles such as Finding Nemo, Toy Story, Ratatouille, and Up. It won two Oscars (Best Animated Film of the Year, Sound editing) and “Movie of the Year” at the American Film Institute (AFI) in 2005.

The Incredibles is one of those animated films that is enjoyable by adult and child alike. It is carried by delightful storytelling, enriched by a surprising density of plot, as well as vivid characterizations. It also takes its PG rating seriously (all other Pixar films are rated G), depicting family dysfunction and crisis unflinchingly, if sympathetically, and, in a Pixar first, has human villains attempting to kill human heroes, including their children. It’s cartoon violence, of course, but the film surprises by how it draws not only our excitement, but also the fibers of our heartstrings. It taps into personal territory with issues such as repressed talents and unfulfilled potential, soul-draining days jobs, midlife crisis, adolescent insecurity and nostalgia for real heroes. It packs in social commentary on issues such as the dangers of praising mediocrity, of the law-suit trigger-happy culture, and even the risks of marital infidelity. All of these critiques are in the service of a higher truth: the affirmation of the inherent dignity of human life. “Valuing life is not a weakness,” one character defiantly declares, “and disregarding it is not strength!” 

So what is the theme that makes this film a candidate for a series on "the hidden roots of love"? A clue may be found in one of its subtle story details. While a plane is whizzing towards a secret island, we can read on the control that the island’s name is “Nomanisan”. Blink and you miss the pun, but it gives us a major key to understanding what The Incredibles is about. Every character is grappling with the use and non-use and proper use of their talents; they go through the great, purifying tests that elevate the practice of their gifts, and help them mature past individualism.

Let’s take each character in turn. Mr. Incredible or “Bob Parr” starts the movie mugging for the “camera” like a celebrity, a man clearly in the prime of his life and at the height of his career. His opening exploits in the city confirm that his powers are being used for the civic good, but at the same time, his attitude is slightly off-key. He struts around with his chest puffed out, and violently rejects a young fan who wants to be his side-kick, an error that will sow his darkest challenges to come. Mr. Incredible is primarily incredible on the scale of muscle-power; but he is Superman without Superman’s humility (although he still has our sympathy, because he is fundamentally good, and very much like us). Later, his soul-destroying job as an insurance claims processor wonderfully illustrates the spiritual miasma of repressed talents and mismatched vocation. His office cubicle is a lonely island in an endless sea of isolated islands.

Elastigirl, or “Helen Parr” seems more content with the family’s hidden role in the suburbs. Her super-talent of stretching her body like a curvaceous Gumby remains restricted to breaking up acrobatic fights between her unruly children. If she is frustrated by the restriction of her special powers, she doesn’t show it. But there is a growing edge to her voice and in her demeanor towards her husband and family that increases as time goes by. While she remains the heart of the Parr family home, she, too, is feeling the effects of her family’s subdued life.

The eldest daughter Violet has the powers of projecting some kind of force-field and making herself invisible, which she does when it helps her avoid awkward social situations. She’s afflicted with angst over fitting in, once telling Helen: “Normal? ... What does anyone in this family know about normal?…We act normal, mother. I want to be normal.” A typical teenager, perhaps, as she struggles to discover and claim her emerging identity. She is also is pointing her finger at the truth of the family’s double-standard.

Dash, the younger brother, chafes under the orders he’s been given not to use his power of lightening-fast speed. He, too, just wants to fit in at school, and be able to compete athletically with his peers, even promising to hold back a little to make the races legit. Dash is acting out at school, pulling pranks on his teachers, getting sent to the principal’s office. He has been told his powers are not something to be ashamed of, but he is definitely not supposed to use them. He finds the contradiction unbearable. 

The Parr family is afflicted by a case of hiddentalentitis. They’ve had to bury their gifts, hide their “lights” under proverbial bushel baskets. They are denying the full flourishing and exercise of their abilities. It is frustrating for all of them, whether they are fully aware of it or not, with each unhappy in his or her own way. Perhaps they should never have gone underground, and resisted the government’s resettlement program for superheroes.

Or maybe it was all for the good. Perhaps the discipline of self-denial has, in a strange, roundabout way, been purifying these past 15 years, like a long Lenten journey in the desert. The risk for the powerful is not just that they might become villains (like “Syndrome”, the main baddie in this film, who is clearly abusing the powers he has seized for himself); rather, the risk is the subtle corruption of intentionality, in a way that keeps the exterior shiny-clean and commendable, while inner motives get corroded and tinged by the ego. As T.S. Eliot writes in Murder in the Cathedral: “The last act is the greatest treason. To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” 

According to Ignatius of Loyola, all the gifts we are given, even the ones we help cultivate ourselves, not ultimately for our well-being alone, but to be shared. Every grace given contains within it a mission. “Love,” he writes in the Spiritual Exercises, “gives of what it possesses”, even if the only thing I have is knowledge. Knowledge is redeemed, even elevated and expanded, when I share it with others. One might say that our talents don’t ever acquire their full function until they are deployed in altruistic (the inner attitude) gift to others (the outer action). Talent achieves its form only when it is given away in selflessly generosity.

It’s entirely appropriate that a family is the “theatre” in which the characters dramatically learn to mature their use of their talents. A family is the first school of love, where members discover how to serve and be served, to love and be loved. As John Paul II once wrote, “The family finds in the plan of God the Creator and Redeemer not only its identity, what it is, but also its mission, what it can and should do… Each family finds within itself a summons that cannot be ignored and that specifies both its dignity and responsibility: family, become what you are!”

The Incredibles are an indeed an “super” family, with a gross excess of talent. But it is their humanity and weakness that draw us to them in sympathy. There is no perfect family in the real world, but the Parrs model for us how every family, every community, that is built upon human relationship, can learn to orient its love both ad intra and ad extra. In the end, every family that is founded upon love is incredible.

Meditation Questions
1) What are some gifts or talents that I have been given?
2) When I exercise my talents, what are my main driving motives in using them?
3) How have my motives been examined in the past? How might they need to be purified in the present? How do I verify whether I am motivated authentically by love?

St. Ignatius suggests a prayer to begin one's meditation: 
“Lord, I ask for the grace that all of my intentions, actions, and operations might be purely ordered to the service and praise of your divine majesty.” 

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Review: Groundhog Day

By John O'Brien, S.J.

1993. Director: Harold Ramis. 100 min.
Actors: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott
Music: George Fenton

“Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today.”
– Phil, Groundhog Day

Phil Connors (Murray) is a self-absorbed weatherman at a Pittsburgh television station, who feels he is destined for better things, and disdains both his co-workers and, especially, the annual February 2 trip into Punxsutawney to cover the winter/spring prognostications of its famous groundhog. This year, he goes with Rita (MacDowell), a new producer, and Larry (Elliott) the cameraman, making no bones about his frustration. The next day, he wakes up to find he is reliving the events of Groundhog Day all over again. Initially believing he is experiencing an acute case of déjà vu, Phil soon realizes it is exactly the same day as before.  As he relives the day, over and over, Phil begins to wonder if it going to be his fate forever. When he realizes that his actions have no long-term consequences, he has exhilarating highs and despairing lows. He realizes he can accumulate knowledge about other people, especially the beautiful Rita, knowledge he can use for good or for bad. As he tries, in various ways, to use the phenomenon to his advantage and to try to break its curse, Phil is really being given chance after chance to get his day “right”.

In Film History 
Groundhog Day won awards at second-tier festivals when it came out in 1993, but was not nominated for any major awards. It has slowly gained recognition, however, and in 2006, the National Film Preservation Board selected it for special preservation status in the National Film Registry.

Phil: I'm a god.
Rita: You're God?
Phil: I'm a god. I'm not “the” God...  I don't think.

Spiritual Reflection
Groundhog Day is a comedy about what makes humans happy and fulfilled. Using the fantastical scenario of a man living each day without any consequences to his actions, we get to explore a) what are the actual qualities of “a good life”, and b) what are the qualities of “a good person”. When he realizes he is in a recurring loop, Phil goes through a number of phases: hedonistic, despondent, altruistic, and, finally, the discovery of his true self. These phases mirror tendencies in the normal human person, even those not experiencing the Groundhog Day phenomenon. Some people live only constrained by the rule of law or social pressures, but who essentially are living for themselves, and as soon as restraints are lifted, would exploit situations for selfish gain. Most never discover their innate selfishness unless they find themselves in a situation without law, like the children in Lord of the Flies. But many do discover the freedom of living not for oneself, but for others. What Groundhog Day excels as showing, is how, if given enough chances, a person would eventually come to realize that the moral law is the best conduit to the highest human happiness.

Most of our human follies are due to forgetfulness. We forget the costs of our heedless actions: the severity of the hangover, the bitter feelings left after angry and unconsidered words. We normally have to learn our lessons over and over again because we forget. This is due to two things primarily: our human tendency to “concupiscence” (the inordinate desire to possess) and the “irascible” (the tendency to anger) passions. Eventually, if we lived long enough, we would likely figure out how to live the real “good life”, in the manner most conducive to peaceful and joyful living. We could learn to regulate our passions with reason and right judgment. For most of us, it is the work of a lifetime.

The ancient Greek philosophers considered all this millennia ago, and today’s psychology and spirituality writers mainly just play on their insights, just using different terms and categories. Aristotle argued in the Nicomachean Ethics, that the man who possesses excellent character does the right thing, at the right time, and in the right way. Courage, and the proper regulation of one’s bodily appetites, are examples of character excellence or virtue. The highest aims are living well – eudaimonia, a Greek word often translated as well-being, happiness or “human flourishing”. Aristotle regarded excellent activity as pleasurable for the man of virtue. For example, he thought that the man whose appetites are in the correct order actually takes pleasure in acting moderately. For Aristotle, virtue was very practical, and since the right course of action depends on the particulars of a situation, every situation requires the application of “practical wisdom”, also known as the virtue of  “prudence”.

Aristotle considers all four of the “cardinal virtues”, which are the moral virtues concerned with the pursuit of right action: prudence, justice, temperance and courage. He saw prudence as an "intellectual virtue" as well, the one that governs and guides the others. Yet all the moral virtues, he holds, require each other, like a well-functioning family. What is more, throughout his analyses of the moral virtues, Aristotle emphasizes that they all aim at what is beautiful (kalos), since the right course of action, or “the good”, is always linked to “the beautiful”. In the end, it is beauty that will save the world of Phil Connors, by re-tuning his actions from selfishness to goodness.

Beauty is linked to wonder. Phil is in serious danger of living a flat, bored, and narrow existence, exemplifying the adage: “If we lose our sense of wonder, no wonders will occur among us.” Phil needs to awaken to the unexpectedness of his own life, perhaps triggered by an aesthetic experience, an encounter with the beautiful.

“At the back of our brains, there is a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in his Autobiography. “The object of the artistic and spiritual life is to dig for this submerged sense of wonder.” Perhaps Phil’s experience of repeating February 2 over and over is a salvific aesthetic experience created by the Divine Artist. Perhaps it is a "spiritual exercises" that Phil must undergo in order to be purified of his selfish dross, to find his true self, and discover his spiritual freedom.

It might not be too extreme to consider the events of Groundhog Day in light of the Catholic notion of purgatory. “Purgatory”, whether it be the refining experiences leading us to love during our earthly lifetimes, or as a spiritual experience before the gaze of God on the threshold of heaven (which could be instantaneous, for all we know, since we cannot impose our human categories of time or space on such after-life realities), is ultimately a merciful act of kindness and of personal re-creation. Phil must experience a purification, in order to a) discover his true self, in the sight of God, and b) be ready for the beatitude or joy of heaven. It was a phenomenon too unexpected and out of the ordinary to be anything other than a grace.

1) Has an encounter with Beauty ever “shocked” me into pursuing the good (becoming a better person)?

2) Have I experienced a kind of “purgatory” in my own life, in such a way that has made – recreated – me as a better person before God and before neighbour?

3) How does Groundhog Day depict “the hidden roots of love”? Identify one or two ways Phil must go deep to discover them. Reflect on myself, and end with personal dialogue with the Lord.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Review: The Island (Ostrov)

By John O'Brien, S.J.

2006, Director: Pavel Lungin. 112 min.
Actors: Pyotr Mamonov, Viktor Sukhorukov, Dmitriy Dyuzhev
Music: Vladimir Martynov

During World War Two, a worker on a Russian coal barge, Anatoly (Mamonov), is given the choice by Nazi boarders to either shoot his captain, Tikhon, and have the chance to live, or be shot alongside him. Anatoly chooses the first option, and then falls overboard as the Germans scuttle the boat. Three decades later (in 1976), Anatoly is living an ascetic life at a monastery on an island. He lives in a boiler house, and spends his time wheeling coal from the wrecked boat to feed the furnaces that warm the monastic houses. He walks the island saying The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner”) and asking Tikhon to pray for his soul. The monks tolerate his presence, despite his habit of pulling “pranks”, unpredictable acts that unnerve them. Anatoly, it is clear, is something of a “holy fool”, and also appears to have gifts, such as the ability to heal, predict the future, and exorcise demons; diverse people come to the island seeking him out. Some of the monks, such as Father Job (Dyuzhev), struggle with envy, and resentment at Anatoly’s antics, while the superior, Father Filaret (Sukhorukov), though bewildered, is inspired to try to overcome his own inordinate attachments.

Film History 
Winner: Best Film, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematographer at the Nika Awards (the "Russian Oscars") in 2007. Also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, 2007. Closed the Venice Film Festival in 2007.

The Island can justifiably be compared to any work by Tarkovsky or Bergman.

Spiritual Reflection
The Island is a strange movie with a surprising capacity to arrest us in spiritual ways. It lingers on in the imagination long after the closing credits. This is usually a sign that a film has inner depths that may not be available to us entirely at the conscious level, but has nonetheless managed to speak to our spirit. Russian filmmakers are particularly good at this.

What is the point of this story of a guilt-laden Orthodox brother who apparently “wastes” his life atoning and mourning an ancient mistake? The sorrow and penance seems disproportionate to the crime. Surely he has confessed his “sin”, committed under extreme wartime pressure, and found redemption, especially at a holy place like the monastery? To our modern sensibility, Anatoly seems obsessed in an unhealthy way with his sin. Get over it! God is merciful! You have confessed your sin: go, and sin no more!

But The Island does not offer this scenario. Instead, we have a man who has embraced a life of atonement, “whose sin”, as the psalm says, “is always before him.” He does not wish to simply let it go. He does not reject God’s mercy, but nor does he presume he has received it. Rather, he continuously begs for it, both for himself and for others. He is, indeed, a strange sort of Christian. We get the sense that he has a role to play in the world, perhaps bearing an odd vocation, an unusual prophetic mission, but it’s hard to get a handle on it. He reminds us of the more outlandish of the Old Testament prophets, like locust and honey-eating John the Baptist, a wild-man clothed in camel-skin, who by his very strangeness and urgency, has a message that rings as loud and pure as a clarion call.

Moreover, he might remind us of Ezekiel, whose mission of calling Israel to return to God went unheeded, forcing him to make ever more exagerated signs. The Lord asks Ezekiel to lie on his side in full view of the people for more than a year. During that time he has a dietary prescription: “And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt, and put them into a single vessel, and make bread of them” (Ez 4:9). So far, not so bad. Whole grains are healthy, aren’t they? But wait, the Lord continues: “And you shall eat it as a barley cake, baking it in their sight on human dung.” Human dung. For over a year, Ezekiel must cook his food on burning human feces. Perhaps Ezekiel was crazy for agreeing to be God’s prophet. But God was so exasperated by his people, we infer, that he was desperate to get their attention (although, we should note, God relents somewhat about the human feces bit, and allows Ezekiel to burn cow dung).

To understand Anatoly in The Island, we might see his calling in the same prophetic vein, like certain saints such as Francis of Assisi, whose countrymen also thought him out of his mind. And, in a certain sense, Francis was. He embraced contagious lepers, talked to animals, danced and sang like a madman. Yet he also performs miraculous deeds, founds the largest religious order ever seen, reforms the papacy, nearly reconverts the world of Islam, and reboots the Christian world. Francis was God-intoxicated, saturated with God, and had a powerful effect on nearly all of western civilization.

Anatoly's life, by contrast, is more hidden. And there may be another dimension to his life than just "holy tomfoolery". He carries his guilt through it all, as if he has glimpsed, in a profound way, his own sinfulness as an objective fact, grasped how much he and he alone owns his sinfulness, and perhaps has even seen his place among the eternally lost. He may have realized – in the final analysis – that he does not then “deserve” anything, has no inherent “right” to anything, other than his sin. In fact, his sense of sin, extreme as it may seem, could actually be part of his spiritual mission. As we see, his gifts of clairvoyance and healing, which are linked to his humility, bring about great good in the lives of others.

The film director, Pavel Lungin, has said he doesn't regard Anatoly as being clever or spiritual, but blessed “in the sense that he is an exposed nerve, which connects to the pains of this world. His absolute power is a reaction to the pain of those people who come to it.”

Yet, “typically, when the miracle happens, the lay people asking for a miracle are always dissatisfied” because “the world does not tolerate domestic miracles.” They want a magical result, while God is just asking for simple faith, which is confounding. Dmitry Sobolev, the screenwriter, explains: “When a person asks for something from God, he is often wrong because God has a better understanding of what a person wants at that moment.” God wants us to ask for things, but he also wants us to trust him. We have to be ready to accept the answer.

This casts light on the unusual role that Anatoly’s poor and apparently wasted life may have played in the grander scheme. His brand of sanctity may consist in allowing the pain of his guilt to meet the pain of others in a direct and salvific way. Since his guilt is imbued with faith in God’s saving power and goodness, it is elevated beyond the level of meaninglessness and neurosis, and becomes a power based on a deep awareness of his own smallness. He sees what very few see clearly: that we are truly children. The consequence of this awareness of spiritual childhood is nothing short of revolutionary: the awakening of the spiritual senses, and the possible transformation of the world.

It is not likely that many are called to be one of the yurodivy, or “holy fools” that are part of the Russian spiritual tradition. Nor should we confuse their “prophetic insanity” with real mental illness. But their example, when they occasionally flash across the horizon of normal human community, points to something important: They show us Christ. They teach us much about living a right-ordered life, and model for us the way of radical trust, of humility, and of forgiveness. Thus they are islands of sanity and healing in the sea of the world.

Be sure to read the speech of actor Pyotr Mamonov at the premiere of The Island.

Prayer Questions
1) Was there something about the spiritual attitude of Anatoly that challenges me, whether positively or negatively. Ask myself why this is so, and ask God the same question.

2) Pick one or two spoken lines from the film that you remember and meditate on them. Chew them over, taste them, and extract their deeper meaning. Try to do this without “over-analyzing”. Let the words themselves speak to you as you consider them.

3) Pick one or two visual images from the film that stand out most vividly, and meditate on them, in the same way as (no. 2). Gaze on the image and let the image gaze on you. Let your meditations turn, finally, into prayer.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Review: Pushing Tin

By John O'Brien, S.J.

1999. Director: Mike Newell.
Actors: John Cusack, Billy Bob Thorton, Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie.
Music: Anne Dudley.   (Rated R for language and mild sexuality)

"O what tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
–  Sir Walter Scott

Pushing Tin opens in the control room at the New York's Terminal Radar Approach Center (TRAC), where a team of air traffic controllers coordinate some 7,000 flights a day that zip in and out of Kennedy, La Guardia, and Newark airports. It’s a hectic and high-pressure work-place. When a tour of kids comes through the facility they are told: “Air controllers are responsible for more lives in a single shift than a surgeon in a lifetime.” Nick Falzone (Cusack), known as “the Zone”, is the hotshot controller of the group, who owns his reputation of being top of the game. Nick relates to his suburbanite wife Connie (Blanchette) with the same short attention span that enables him to land planes in split-second time frames. His status is challenged when a mysterious new transfer, Russell Bell (Thorton), arrives to work at the Center. Russell is the opposite of Nick – he’s restrained, calm, and of few words – but shares with Nick a reputation for daring and a perfect safety record for landing planes. Russell’s demeanor provokes Nick into challenging him to little male-ego contests that progressively intensify. Nick is also intrigued by Russell’s voluptuous young wife Mary (Jolie), who turns heads at a backyard BBQ party. The rivalry between the men soon gets out of hand, and regrettable things happen. Before Nick knows it, he has lost his cool, his ability to “push tin” and maintain slick control of his life.

In Film History 

This film has gone almost unnoticed, despite British director Mike Newell’s reputation for acclaimed odd-ball films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Into the West, and Enchanted April. This is most likely because it doesn't fit neatly into any genre, which usually dampers popularity and box office success. Is it a comedy, a romance or a drama? It's a comedy, at any rate, in the classical sense.

Spiritual Reflection

"But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'"
–    2 Corinthians 12:9
The character of Nick Falzone in Pushing Tin is an “everyman”. He represents all of us, citizens of the modern age, for whom life can be fast-paced, excessively busy, and demanding to be “managed” so as not to get out of control. We tend to fear the prospect of our lives being “out of the control” as if some primordial chaos lies waiting to surge and snatch us up, or that we might find ourselves disintegrating into a thousand pieces. We have a particular tendency to micro-manage ourselves and the people around us. It’s safer to be in control.

Control is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a certain level of “control” that we need in our lives in order to be responsible peoples: mothers, fathers, workers, students, and so on. If I never set my alarm clock and just woke up “whenever”, I would probably be late for a great many appointments, causing inconvenience to a great many people. If I didn’t control the amount of food or drink I consume I might end up with a stomach-ache, or worse. If I didn’t think before speaking I would, no doubt, say a lot of silly things I’ll regret (sadly, I still do this from time to time!). Exercising responsibility over my thoughts, words and actions is part of living an ordered life, and is a habit that is quite conducive to happiness.

But there is another kind of control that Pushing Tin is hinting at, ever so subtly – or perhaps not so subtly, given the great obvious metaphor of the movie (hint: in the title). Our “control” is not a real freedom, unless we’re free to give it up when higher laws, such as love, require it. Otherwise it becomes a bondage, just another idol. If fear is what motivates our need to plan and direct, then we are not really liberated people, and that’s the kind of control we should seek to give up or surrender.

There are a many other good reasons to consider embracing the “surrender” we are talking about.

First, consider that we can’t really control our lives. Control is mostly an illusion we adopt, a conceit that we indulge. Even John Lennon noted that “life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” Aside from the obvious and necessary planning that practical living requires, if we obsess about ensuring a seamless day, that day is sure to become unraveled. Micromanagement is a recipe for frustration.

Second, when we leave room for the freedom of other people in our life to breathe, we find that we have happier and healthier relationships. Friendships begin to flourish and family members bond more closely. It’s one of the great paradoxes of life that we only really have love when we set it free, that is, not be possessive about it (or him or her).

Third, and most importantly, we need to leave room in our lives for the spontaneity of grace, to allow God room to enter and inspire. It may take courage to “let go and let God”, since we have all kinds of irrational resistances to the idea. But again, a true Father has only the best interests of his child in mind. We should not be afraid of giving God some ear. His still, small voice may be the best thing we hear all day.

So, surrendering control is ultimately an act of genuine humility. It takes humility to say “I’m sorry” and admit that I have been wrong. But humility is only another way of acknowledging “reality”, and thus it is freedom. When I am humble, I’ve shed illusions, and I know exactly who I am, both my strengths and my weaknesses – and that God loves me for who I am. So both responsibility and “surrender” go hand-in-hand; they are like complementary friends who walk together.

A good day is one in which I have offered everything to be “fructified” – made holy and fruitful – by God himself. It always astounds me how positively different my day is when I have begun it in prayer, compared with days in which I have launched willy-nilly without entrusting the day to God. St. Ignatius of Loyola, in the Spiritual Exercises, recommends praying for a particular grace in this way: “that all my thoughts, intentions and operations be directed purely to the praise and service of his Divine Majesty.” This powerful morning prayer means that everything I do and say in a day can be made fruitful for God. It evokes both responsibility and surrender.

Nick “the Zone” Falzone believed that he could control his life, including the acts that he wished to keep hidden. But in the end these acts find their own way to reveal themselves, bringing about their own cosmic justice. Non-Christians might call this karma. Christ said “nothing is hidden that shall not be revealed, nor anything secret that shall not be made known and come to the light” (Luke 8:17). Nick learns this the hard way, but in the end, realizes that the great revealing of his real self is a great mercy.

While the characters in Pushing Tin are fallen human beings, and the director explores the nuances of their egotism with unrelenting attention, he also does so with a great overlying sympathy, as the periodic doses of humour indicate. What is true comedy but the ability to laugh at our human folly as it realigns with right living? In this way, the director shows us a pathway to inner freedom, through the spiritual practice of letting go.

Questions for personal reflection

1. How does the title “Pushing Tin”, the central metaphor of this film, point to a deeper meaning about human life?
2. What does “surrendering to God” mean to me, and what area of my life might need “surrendering”?
3. How have I experienced both forgiving and being forgiven, and what was the freedom like that followed that spiritual act?

“Through prayer we succeed in being with God. Anyone who is with God is far from the enemy. Prayer is a support and protection of charity, a brake on anger, an appeasement and the control of pride. Prayer is the custody of virginity, the protection of fidelity in marriage, the hope for those who are watching."  
— Gregory of Nyssa, De Oratione Dominica

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Review: On the Waterfront

By John O'Brien, S.J.

Director: Elia Kazan, 1954.
Actors: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie-Saint, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Lee Cobb.
Music: Leonard Bernstein.

“Conscience... that stuff can drive you nuts!”
– Terry Molloy, On the Waterfront

Terry Molloy (Brando) is a young ex-prizefighter who is now a longshoreman, given easy jobs on the New Jersey waterfront because his older brother Charley (Steiger) is the right-hand man of the corrupt union boss, Johnny Friendly (Cobb). After Terry unwittingly allows himself to be used to set up the murder of a dockworker named Joey, he starts to question the basic assumptions of his life, including his loyalty to Charley and Johnny, who, after all, had ordered him to take a dive in his big fight in Madison Square Garden several years before. When he meets the murdered man’s sister Edie (Saint) and Father Barry (Malden), he is challenged even more to see the underlying corruption in the dockyards and his own complicity in it.

Place in History 

Near sweep of the Academy Awards in 1955, winning 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Writing, and Editing.
In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked it as the #19 Greatest Movie of All Time.

When On the Waterfront was released in 1954, it was 23 years after Pope Pius XI had issued his social encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931). The encyclical was written on the ethical implications of the social and economic order, similar to its predecessor Rerum Novarum (1891), Leo XIII’s seminal social encyclical 40 years prior. Pius XI described the major dangers to human freedom from both unrestrained capitalism and totalitarian communism.

Pius XI called for a social order based on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, especially between employers and employees through new forms of cooperation and communication. He condemned communism but also the social conditions which nourished it. The encyclical called for a new social structure in which government, industry, and labor work together in a kind of third way between capitalism and communism. With this in mind, we can see in this film how the harmonious relationship between labour and capital can go astray, and that corruption is possible in any sector of society, wherever human beings do not respect the fundamental human dignity and rights of their fellows. Going a little deeper, the film also shows how any reform of a “system” must begin with a reform of the human heart. Terry Molloy’s moral awakening represents the personal “metanoia”, or conversion, that must precede the workers’ collective “metanoia” – which here means gaining the courage to end a corrupt system of domination, cronyism and kickbacks (enforced by violence), and the restoration of a more just system of union representation.

In the 1950s, in America, new worker and urban apostolic movements were active in the Church, the best known being those by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, founders of the Catholic Worker movement, and Catherine Doherty, who founded the Madonna House Apostolate. The character of Father Barry in On the Waterfront is based on the Jesuit priest, Fr. John Corridan, who fought corruption and organized crime on the New York City waterfront in the 1940s and 50s. He was one of many men and women who prayed and worked hard for justice in impoverished sectors of North American society. Their work continues today.

“ Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. Well, they better wise up!”
– Father Barry, On the Waterfront

Spiritual Reflection

For those of us alive today, the economic situation has changed dramatically since that of the 1950s.  North American economy is no longer primarily industrial, but has evolved into a faster, wealthier digital culture, the so-called information economy. This film, however, reminds us that some things never change: there is still conflict between the “hawks and pigeons” (notice this motif throughout the film!) today just as in every age. Souls are still damaged especially by the various forms of abandonment and neglect (as happened to Terry in this film). The exclusive pursuit of profit still drives many lives. Conscience – the still small voice of God written on our hearts – still speaks to each of us and calls us to metanoia.

Edmund Burke famously said, “All it takes for evil to prosper, is for good men to do nothing.” Sometimes conscience calls us to break out of a certain basic complacency, to crack our “comfort zones” as this complacency is often called today. Conscience can call us to make a greater witness to Truth, Goodness or Beauty than what we are accustomed to, even at personal cost. Our faith, too, requires of us an active form of listening, of paying attention to God’s voice in the world around us, and then acting. While there is, on the one hand, the risk of becoming “busybodies for Christ”, the extreme of activism, there is also the opposite risk of quietism, of letting things slide because the effort could cost too much. St. Ignatius of Loyola notes that the evil spirit loves the tactic of “proposing obstacles” and fears to our interior ear. These fears are often just illusions, “false reasonings”, and comprise 99% of the enemy’s tool-kit. But the answer is not a “golden mean” between activism and quietism, a kind of mushy-middle ground. Instead, Jesus invites to “Be not afraid!”, to take heart – for love will cast out all fear and empower us to do the impossible.

So how might we free ourselves from our own, personal forms of quietism and discover anew our freedom as sons and daughters of God? There are two powerful moments in the film that depict a particular turning point in the lives of the protagonists. We might call them “confessional moments”, scenes in which, having been touched by love, the characters admit they have been complicit in error. We will notice how these scenes are catalysts for the spiritual liberation that follows, although there is some cost. Without giving too much away, we can identify the first such scene as when Terry decides he will accept the risk of losing Edie, and admit to her his role in her brother’s murder. What we witness is certainly an imperfect confession, limited by outside interference, but it frees him spiritually to do what he must do.

The second is one of the most famous scenes in film history, the “I coulda been a contender” speech Terry gives his brother Charley in the taxicab. Here one brother must speak a hard truth to another, and, as director Elia Kazan later said about Brando: “Who else could read ‘Oh, Charley!’ in a tone of reproach that is so loving and so melancholy and suggests the terrific depth of pain?” Terry’s moment of truth-speaking to his older brother causes Charley “to convert” from the task he had set out to do, and make his own act of selfless sacrifice. In a sense, Terry had to “confess” Charley’s sins to and for Charley, by the very act of his gentle but powerful admonishment. This truth-telling, of naming what needed naming, is only possible because there is a shrunken but still living love between them.

In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius reminds us vividly that “the enemy behaves like a false lover who wishes to remain hidden and does not want to be revealed.” (Sp. Ex. 326), that the seducer loves to operate in the shadows. But by speaking and acting “confessionally”, that is, by living in the light and bringing things to the light, evil can be defeated and love can begin its road to restoration and full flourishing. Indeed, the light is already there, in the hearts of Terry, Charley, Edie and Father Barry. As this film shows, that light will shine in the darkness. And the darkness does not overcome it.

The theme of this film series is “The Hidden Roots of Love”. Somehow, in this classic, noir-like film we see only the beginnings of love taking form and standing on its own two feet. It invites us to consider how love requires a letting go of some voices, and of following others. Love means listening, above all, to an inner voice. Love will probably require of us a sacrifice, but it will, in the end, provide the one reliable pathway to inner freedom. On the Waterfront shows us the subtle and poignant manifestations of human and divine love in an otherwise grim and gritty world. In doing so, it gives us a little glimpse of heaven.


1) Is this film primarily about love or justice? How are they related?
2) As we see in the film, fear is a paralyzer. How do the characters overcome fear? 
Does fear play a role in my life that limits my ability to live and love more fully?
3) In every human drama, in one form or another, the drama of the Pascal Mystery (Christ’s passion, death and resurrection) is present in the lives of the characters. Is this the case in this film?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Calling All People to Life

By John D. O’Brien, S.J. 

Photo: John O'Brien, S.J.

Coming so soon from watching one of the most moving and remarkable films I’ve ever seen, I was inspired when I received a song by Canadian songwriter and musician Erin Leahy that explored similar themes. Leahy’s “Calling All People to Life”, like the movie Gravity, dwells upon the idea of the inherent fragility and value of human life, pivots upon the power of prayer, alludes to the fundamental choice between life and death, and has great exultant motifs of baptism and rebirth. Already getting radio-play, this new song from the Juno-award winning artist captures several basic themes from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. I invite readers to listen to the song for themselves, which is posted here with her permission:

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Retreat in Vancouver: the cast

There was a great turn-out and wonderful response to the Ignatian Discernment retreat on Jan 26 at St. Mark's Parish/College in Vancouver, B.C. A snapshot of Jesuits in action.

With, Fr. Mbugua "the growler" William, S.J.

Fr. John "I clench my fists when I'm angry" McCarthy, S.J.

Fr. Elton "the discernment origamist" Fernandes, S.J.,

Um, me, "boxing fanatic" O'Brien,

Kevin "the hitman" Eng, esquire,

And a group of more than fifty young adults from twenty parishes in nine Greater Vancouver cities...

Thanks are due to St. Mark's College for being our host, the college council of the Knights of Columbus for providing lunch, and Fr. Rob Allore, S.J., pastor St. Mark's Parish for the use of the Church for Adoration and Mass...

A.M.G.D. That's what this was all about.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Ignatian Young Adults Retreat in Vancouver

If anyone knows young adults in the Vancouver area looking for something like this right now... forward it to them -- and have them email me.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Some Christmas Poems I Like

This first one is poignant because of what must be happening with holy family at the time the maid is recalling... more than thirty years after Bethlehem:

The Maid-Servant At The Inn

"It's queer," she said; "I see the light

As plain as I beheld it then,

All silver-like and calm and bright-
We've not had stars like that again!

"And she was such a gentle thing
To birth a baby in the cold.

The barn was dark and frightening-

This new one's better than the old.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Remembering a Children's Icon

In the wake of the senseless killing of the twenty children and their six teachers in Newton, Connecticut last week, there is some traction in the on-line world remembering the nation's unofficial children's pastor, the late Fred Rogers of the multi-decade television show, Mister Roger's Neighbourhood. Sometimes the object of jokes and parody, the fact remains that he was something of an icon of children's education and entertainment. His show lasted more than thirty years (1968-2001), and his gentle and patient persona affirmed and influenced generations of children.