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?