After an interim of a very busy year, I decided to resume blogging; but my blog needed to be updated. So I've moved over to a new site!
I've imported this blog wholesale into my new blog, The Pantheon. Feel free to come join me over there! I've already begun posting.
Many thanks to those of you who faithfully read this blog over the last five years. Your comments, discussion, and generous encouragement motivated me to keep writing--a task I will continue to pursue over at the new location.
Sunday, June 23, 2013
For the second time in less than a year, the little French mountain town is submerged in an unexpected and dangerous deluge. Dark, muddy waters of the Gave de Pau roar around—and almost above—the rocky little grotto where the Blessed Virgin appeared to Bernadette Soubirous.
These latest flash floods come just after the French government let loose a different kind of flood—the legalization of gay marriage. The same France Our Lady chose as a special site of healing is inundated with a torrential wave of sickening relativism regarding love and marriage. The meaning of marriage has been desecrated, and the French must now accept a distorted form of lust as “marriage,” must not assert that this sacred bond only belongs between one man and one woman. The voice of reason has been drowned out. The destructive floods drowning Lourdes are not a consequence of the political decision; but they are an apt sign of it.
In the United States, we are facing a similar flood. This week, the Supreme Court will decide whether to legalize gay marriage. Disney just okayed the first gay couple in its children’s TV shows. The Boy Scouts succumbed to cultural pressures to approve open gays in their ranks. The Pew Research Center just released a study revealing the striking media bias in favor of gay marriage. In short, everywhere you look, the falsehood that homosexuality is normal and praiseworthy and should be revered as socially acceptable as “marriage” is emblazoned across our newspapers and computer screens, proclaimed aloud from secular pulpits and flaunted with arrogant “pride” in our streets. The high tide of support for the gay agenda is overwhelming.
It is tempting to feel that our society will be swept away in this deluge: that the waters pounding about our ears will push down and wipe out our social sanity—a cultural Katrina for our country. But in the midst of this rising tide, and thinking of the waters rising round our Lady’s feet at Lourdes in the wake of France’s sad new decision, we ought to remember another flood—a flood strangely connected by symbol to the one which we face now: the flood of Noah.
There is, perhaps, no little irony in the fact that the flag chosen by those who push gay rights was once chosen by God as a promise of hope to mankind: a rainbow. The emblem which, for them, proclaims allegiance to a barren and self-destructive act, was once the herald of new life and fruitfulness for the scion of humanity stepping off the ark onto new ground. It was the promise of God that He would never flood the whole earth again.
It once proclaimed the end of the flood; now it proclaims its coming.
And yet, now, when the rainbow is a banner over the tide of those forcing their redefinition of love and marriage down our throats, there is a new and subtler significance in the symbol. Noah’s stolen rainbow cannot be fully usurped. It remains for us, even now, a sign of hope. Even as they wave it in our faces as a proclamation of their hellish new world, where sin calls itself love and authentic love is labeled hate, we see it and are reminded of its original meaning. It is still a promise. God does not and will not abandon us. There is hope amidst the flood.
Which brings us back to Lourdes. I visited Lourdes a mere week and a half after the murky floodwaters of last October swirled over the spot the Blessed Virgin chose for a sacred stream. Even as I arrived, the waters streamed from the sky in bitterly cold, torrential rains.
But that did not stop the faithful. In the freezing mountain rain and mist, pilgrims still gathered for the evening candlelight rosary procession outside the basilica. My glasses fogging in the cold, my jeans soaked through from the icy puddles pooling up at the altar of the snow-white Virgin, I was deeply moved by the incredible devotion of the many pilgrims who had gathered to pray. The floods had passed, and the faithful prayed on.
The waters of this cultural tide will leave wreckage and havoc in their wake. As if to remind us of God’s promise that the waters will not overwhelm us, a rainbow shines out in the very center of the battle, giving us hope even from our attackers. And while the waters still roar about us, when our prayers are lifted in hope, we ought to remember another promise, to the man who prays to God in time of distress: “The floodwaters may reach high, but him they shall not reach” (Psalm 32:6). Just as for the faithful at Lourdes, these waters will pass, and our prayers will continue. The clouds will break. The waters will subside. And God’s promise will shine in sky, untarnished—still our symbol of hope.
|Gave de Pau in Lourdes|
Monday, June 10, 2013
“Oh, no,” I thought, as I pulled into the church parking lot in search of a Mass. “Here we go again. The 60s in all their glory.” Against the morning sky, the irregular silhouette of the brick building looked nothing like a church.
|Abandon Hope, all ye who enter here.|
I passed through the vast lobby into the angular church: sterile, bare, and plain. The one artistic touch was the stained glass windows, but I’m pretty sure I had seen them before--in the nightmare I had after reading Dante’s Inferno. Worst of all, behind the sanctuary the brown brick wall was broken only by a large, white square. The boring stucco outline reminded me vaguely of a parking garage. No colors, no aesthetic appeal. Just a blank backdrop.
To be fair, what the church lacked in design, the priest made up for in reverence. While I find it hard to feel I’m in a church when the decor tells me I’m in a town hall or modern art museum, by the consecration the “jaws-of-hell” stained glass windows had ceased to distract me.
But suddenly, as the priest raised the consecrated host above his head, it disappeared. I blinked in astonishment. Against the blank cream-white square of the sanctuary, the cream-white host was virtually invisible. “Behold the Lamb of God,” proclaimed the priest, as I could behold nothing but his raised hands and arms stretched up above the altar. Just as I made an act of faith that the host was no longer bread but the Body of my Lord and God, so too I had to make an act of faith that the host was even there. I simply could not see it. My mind raced back to Thomas. “Blessed are those who do not see, but believe.”Coming out of that church, I realized: when you paint your world one color, all distinctions and meanings disappear. As I mused upon my invisible God and my blindness caused by the bad backdrop, it reminded me of another kind of blindness I encounter every day. “Why can’t they see?” I have cried in disbelief at the headlines I read this week. Radical gay-agenda activists are ranting more and more about “marriage equality,” and daily I discover that for many people, who man is and the purpose of sexuality have disappeared. They have gone blind.
What to me always has been, and always will be, an obvious and self-evident truth, is to them simply invisible. “Love is love,” they declare--a tautology disguising their ignorance of what love means. Their blindness is all-encompassing. Men can be women. Women can be men. Even children are sexualized to push the gender-destroying agenda. It is truly heartbreaking to witness their open-eyed delusion and wonder how they can be shown the truth.
LGBT activists chose a rainbow as their emblem, but I believe a blank, single color--like the wall of a parking garage--would be much more appropriate. They use one and only one standard by which to measure their actions: sexual satisfaction. Human nature, the love of God, natural order written in our heart--none of this matters to them. All that matters is the satisfaction of their sensual desires, even if they are self-destructive and unnatural. Blinded by their overriding misconception of love, they cannot see the reality of the love of God.
Soon the Supreme Court will decide whether to legalize gay marriage in the United States, and gay rights activists are pushing hard to erase all lines between men and women. Against the backdrop of their disordered desires, God's design disappears and they can no longer see the truth; and they want everyone else to see it their way, too.
But though many will keep telling me, when it comes to differences between men and women, that there is nothing there to see--just as some tell me the Eucharist is only bread--I believe that men and women are intrinsically different. I believe God made it that way. And I believe that that is not only incredibly good, but incredibly beautiful. It may be a long time before we leave behind the inheritance of the 60s, the backdrop which robbed our churches of their designed beauty and threatens to rob our marriages of their beautiful design. But I know that even if we cannot see the restoration of truth in society, the truth is still there. The Lamb of God is still raised on high, invisible though He may be, and He still shall take away the sins of our dark, blind world.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
--a version of my article was also published at Catholic Exchange today.
British author Stevie Smith (1902-1971) once penned a striking poem called “Not Waving But Drowning.” The poem retells a real-life incident in which a man swimming at a beach began to drown; when his friends on the shore saw him gesticulating wildly, they misinterpreted his signals for help as cheerful waving at them:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving, but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
. . .
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
. . .
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
Smith’s poem hints at the unhappy truth that human perception is flawed; that there is too often a disparity between the way we perceive someone and the reality about them. In fact, frequently what we see of another person’s life is not merely different from but totally opposed to the real story.
It was exactly this grim poem about misperception that came to my mind when I opened my Facebook page and contemplated a sickening social ill splattered like a headline across the top of my news feed.
A woman I know in her 20s was bombarding Facebook with pictures of herself kissing her boyfriend, bragging about how happy she is shacking up with this year’s bedmate. How she’s so much in love. How nothing on earth could make her happier than being the live-in girlfriend of this hottie hunk of man—unless a cure could be found for the cramps her contraception gave her from time to time.
My heart ached at this depressing situation, and yet this was only one example of an all-too-common problem: that many young people I’ve encountered appear happy and content to live on a strange level of unreality: the world of sexual license and self-serving materialism. Some have dived so deep into this secular worldview it seems unlikely they’ll ever resurface to sanity. Atheism, agnosticism, and anti-religious sentiments are prevalent in my generation. Getting drunk is a good time; sexual sins are not sins to them; hook-ups, contraception, and gay marriage are the norm of “love”; and anyone who objects to these things is a narrow-minded bigot. They seem satisfied that their notions of true happiness apparently reach no higher than owning the newest iPhone, beating the latest video game, or achieving a romantic relationship that resembles the Twilight series.
I realized, however, that, just like the people on the shore in Stevie Smith’s poem, my perception of this situation is not quite accurate. External signs of happiness, “wavings” in which the obstinately-secular flaunt before the world what they profess makes them happy (such as the hooked-up couple whose “love” is not grounded in a life-long commitment before God, or the college student who denies the existence of God and seems overjoyed at purchasing a newer piece of technology or attending the midnight premiere of the latest blockbuster)—these external trappings of happiness and high emotions are signs not of flourishing but of failing; of empty souls slowly drowning in a world flooded by materialism.
People who have plunged into this secular mindset aren’t really doing what will leave them satisfied. Alcohol, drugs, and extra-marital sex can’t actually give lasting happiness or lead to human fulfillment; they just effect a cheap imitation of joy for a very short time. And people who seek nothing higher will ultimately find themselves lost, unhappy, and restless, with bitter hearts and broken lives. The material pleasures with which they surround themselves are not happiness, but only empty replacements for the deeper joy of vocation and virtue—and will leave the souls who embrace them still floundering for something real to cling to.
The contracepting couple without the grace of the sacrament of Marriage to keep them going in tough times probably won’t still be together when they’re middle-aged, let alone next year. The young atheists in times of suffering will fumble for some humanitarian meaning to life that will eventually leave them cold and seeking satisfaction elsewhere. Even if at the moment they seem quite content with their situation, that’s not the whole story. We don’t see the damage they’re doing to their own hearts; hearts flailing for help because they’re not yet in the right place. The tragedy is that, unlike the poet’s dead man, they don’t seem to realize it. They’ve been much too far out all their lives; and they are not waving, but drowning.
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
(It wasn't all fun and games by any means. We had a rigorous academic schedule to challenge us while we were there that sometimes felt a bit overwhelming, but ultimately made our European experience that much more amazing).
What made it so special, though, was not that we were traveling about Italy and enjoying ourselves. Not at all. What made it special was that we were there with a purpose; and that made it a pilgrimage. Our first week was spent on pilgrimage together in Assisi and Siena, and our chaplain encouraged us to keep the spirit of pilgrims the whole semester, in our studies and in all the sightseeing and new experiences.
It was a stirring challenge, directed not only to our time in Italy but to our attitude towards our whole lives on earth. How does one be a pilgrim in a three-month long "semester" without a definite final destination? What makes it a pilgrimage? Christians often speak of this life as a pilgrimage, as our journey towards heaven. But often it can feel like we're not "going" anywhere, but simply "living" day to day. What makes it a journey, if we're simply gong about our daily business of working, praying, studying, buying groceries, riding the subway? How are we pilgrims?
Hilaire Belloc once wrote eloquently of the meaning and purpose of a pilgrimage. He said: "A man that goes on a pilgrimage does best of all if he starts out . . . with the heart of a wanderer, eager for the world as it is, forgetful of maps or descriptions, but hungry for real colours and men and the seeming of things. This desire for reality and contact is a kind of humility, this pleasure in it a kind of charity."
Being on a pilgrimage, as Belloc explains, means moving toward your goal with eyes open to the path around you. And when a pilgrimage is a search for God, then that search that encompasses your vision of life and your attitude toward all you encounter: you seek for God everywhere and always. That first week in Assisi, I came across a quote that helped me understand how the vision of a pilgrim could direct both my time in Rome and my time on earth; a quote from the earliest biographer of St. Francis, who wrote: "In beautiful things, Francis saw Beauty Itself."
In the beautiful things around us, we should see a glimpse of the beauty of God. That vision which seeks and sees God in all around us coincides exactly with Belloc's notion of a pilgrim--who knows how to take joy in the journey by seeking his final end in all that he encounters along the way. In every place we went this semester, we were seeking God, seeking to find him wherever we were; not only in every glorious church we entered (and there were many), but in every train station and crowded street, in the classroom and at the little Italian cafes. From the Baroque, golden glory of St. Peter's Basilica, to the sweet simplicity of St. Francis' hermitage chapel, we sought Him . . . and found Him, because we went with eyes and hearts open to His presence.
Thou has said, "Seek ye my face."
My heart says to thee,
"Thy face, LORD, do I seek."
|St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican|
|The chapel at the mountain hermitage of St. Francis in Assisi|
Friday, August 17, 2012
Hell is other people.
|A production of Sartre's Huis Clos|
At least, that’s what French existentialist and Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre said. The line comes from his 1944 play Huis Clos (“No Exit”), in which three damned souls discover that their eternal punishment is not fire-and-brimstone tortures such as abound in Dante’s Inferno, but rather to be locked in a room with the people who will most get on their nerves, to put it mildly, for all eternity.
Sartre’s “Hell is other people” line is usually taken as his commentary on the discomfort caused by living in community with other human beings. The most terrible, exasperating torment, in Sartre’s eyes, is the agony of soul caused by having to live forever alongside someone who drives you up the wall. Their annoying habits, their pettiness or cynicism or stupidity, their disposition and tastes that so frustratingly conflict with yours and require, if you are to live in communion with them, some sort of accommodation or concession of your own likes and desires—that, says Sartre, is Hell.
But another man, an English contemporary of Sartre, had a vastly different vision of Hell. In The Great Divorce, a novel written in 1945, C. S. Lewis made it shockingly clear that Hell is not being forced to live with others you hate; rather, real, genuine, horrible Hell is to be all alone at last with nothing but your sins; alone without any true communion with others or with God. Condemned souls, from Lewis’ point of view, are not souls who suffer because they are forced to be around people they don’t like; they suffer because they are utterly absorbed into themselves, and are left in the end with no solace from their own sins.
Like Huis Clos, Lewis’ novel dispenses with the typical depictions of hell as a place of physical torture; yet unlike Sartre’s play, The Great Divorce paints hell as a grey, mundane, dull town where people are constantly restless and dissatisfied, in increasing and agitated personal and spiritual isolation from one another even if they yet remain in some façade of a community. To be sure, they retain a sizeable contempt for their fellow sinners and even for the saints; the arrogant poet considers them all intellectual inferiors, the narrow-minded cynic thinks them all fools, and the self-satisfied apostate thinks them all unenlightened. Yet their punishment is not to be in company with such people, but to have isolated their souls from real and selfless relationship with an “other,” leaving them alone with their pride, or their cynicism, or their lust, or their selfishness.
The essential point Lewis is trying to make is that, in the end, Hell is not a punishment imposed by God upon unwilling, unfortunate souls. It is a deliberate, individual choice, a choice a soul makes freely. As Lewis’ “guide” through other-worldly regions explains: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.” He goes on to clarify that at some point, a condemned soul decided it would rather keep a damning little sin, even if it cannot be happy with it, rather than have that sin taken away altogether. When that happens, a soul becomes practically swallowed up by its self-destroying sin; the soul almost ceases to be itself, and begins to be merely the stuff of its own sins.
Often, as flawed human beings we can be easily tempted to think our problem is other people. If only so-and-so wasn’t such a jerk, this wouldn’t be so frustrating; my life would get so much better if people just appreciated me. He is just so unreasonable; she whines all the time. Dealing with other people can be so trying an experience that we may despondently declare that someone is “giving us Hell.”
But Lewis’ insight is clear: Hell is not bearing with the (perhaps grave) faults of other people, but living willingly in our own. In reality, human community (“other people”) is our greatest opportunity to grow in charity; it sanctifies us in this life, and is one of the great joys of the next. Here on earth, living with “other people” is not our hell, but our Purgatory: it teaches us to learn about, cope with, and grow out of our own faults in order to function as best we can in a faulty human society. In heaven, at last, we will be relieved of our deficiencies and our sins will be erased from our souls, so that the “other people,” the community of saints and angels, will not be a burden but an everlasting joy—that exchange of mutual love with each other and with that all-important “other,” God, for all eternity.
While Sartre may have been on to something about the pain of living in community, he missed the other side of the coin: in a certain sense, Heaven is other people—because we cannot get there, and we cannot choose to be there, without being other-centered, without coming to live in the selfless communion of love with God and man.
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Amidst rifle shots and whooping cries in the pre-dawn darkness, a veteran Irish-American cavalry soldier and a little girl seek shelter from attacking Apaches in the ruins of a Catholic mission; as they hurry through the dilapidated chapel, both pause, turn, and genuflect in the direction of the sanctuary before racing on to their escape.
This scene, from director John Ford’s Rio Grande, perfectly embodies the way a Catholic upbringing manifests itself in the work of Catholic artists; whether or not they drifted from the faith later in life, their roots remained. Not only Catholic imagery, but also notions of grace and redemption, sin and innocence, and the importance of adhering to principles even when the world is against you—all these elements of a Catholic mentality are often so deeply embedded in the perspective of Catholic filmmakers that it cannot help but shine through in their repertoire. Three of Hollywood’s most brilliant directors—Frank Capra, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock—were all raised Catholic, though they did not all exactly fit in the “practicing, faithful Catholic” category. However, regardless of any apparent imperfection of their personal faith lives, Catholic sensibilities were deeply entrenched in their way of thinking and consequently in their films. Even if their faith was somewhat battered and damaged, like the chapel in the scene from Rio Grande, and even if they moved in a world rather hostile to Catholic principles, they almost unconsciously turned to give it reverence, by the content, color, and characters that make up the focus of their work.
An Italian Catholic, Frank Capra was a champion of hanging on to beliefs and ideals when it seems least likely they will triumph. He had an abiding Catholic confidence in man’s basic goodness, and a likewise Catholic respect for the common man. His films celebrated the ordinary man standing up against corruption, greed, and selfishness; he focused on the need for self-sacrifice to bring about change in a wicked world. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is Capra’s moving call for selfless patriotism, in the story of a young, idealistic politician who is “crucified,” as one character puts it, when he takes a stand against corrupt government; it is only when the hero sticks to his ideals, even when they are a “lost cause,” that he undergoes a political death and resurrection and comes out victorious. The same basic concept is found in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town. Arguably Capra’s most famous, It’s A Wonderful Life is a masterpiece of Catholic sentiment, examining the heroic choice to live a quiet life of selfless duty even if it is unglamorous or materially unsuccessful. You Can’t Take It With You runs along similar lines, when Capra contrasts the bitterness and heartbreak that results from pursuing only material pleasures with the contentment and peace possessed by those who set their sights higher and trust God to provide for them, like “the lilies of the field.”
It doesn’t take much analysis of John Ford’s films to realize that his Irish-Catholic heritage was the wellspring of inspiration for the vast majority of his work. Ford loved to draw on the characters and imagery from Irish-American history; Irish and Catholic characters abound in his films. His pet project was The Quiet Man, set in a small, Catholic, tradition-steeped Irish town; essential to the plot is the fact that the characters look to their local priest for advice and help. But Ford’s work also overflows with subtly Catholic themes of grace and salvation. Stagecoach, for instance—often hailed as the definitive Western—takes a motley handful of imperfect characters—a drunk, an outlaw, a prostitute, a gambler, and a social snob—and charts their journey through a purgatorial experience of mutual suffering. One lesser-known but excellent Catholic-themed work from Ford is 3 Godfathers, in which three bandits become the unlikely godparents and self-sacrificial saviors of an infant in the desert, in a way that parallels the story of the three Magi.
As a director, Alfred Hitchcock returned again and again to themes of innocence and guilt; to tales of innocent men who find themselves entangled in a world of espionage, or mistaken identity, or crime, who must reorder the situation according to a higher standard of justice. Hitchcock also had a knack for adding Catholic depth to his best thrillers by grounding the hero’s adventures in a moral dilemma. Rear Window, for instance, raises the question of whether voyeurism is ethical if it allows one to prevent or uncover crime, when a man with too much time on his hands begins spying on his neighbors and suspects one of murder. In Rope, the protagonist grapples with the ugliness of intellectual pride—and how it spawns other grave sins. Hitchcock’s most obvious return to his Catholic roots, however, was in I Confess, a chilling examination of a (flawed) priest who keeps his vow to uphold the secret of the confessional even when he is falsely accused of murder as a result.
To be a Catholic means that the Catholic view of reality shapes all we do, including the art we produce. The confidence in the existence and importance of invisible things like moral principles, the fundamental goodness of life, and man’s need for grace and redemption—these things deep in the spiritual heritage of cinematic masters like Ford, Capra, or Hitchcock, are unmistakably reflected in their artwork. Even if they were—like most of us—not perfect Catholics, the themes and focus of their films prove they are the fruit of a fundamentally Catholic perspective. They saw with Catholic eyes.
Friday, July 13, 2012
“It was a crazy night but . . . y’know. YOLO.”
UrbanDictionary.com defines “YOLO” as an acronym for “You Only Live Once,” and says it is “mainly used to defend doing something ranging from mild to extreme stupidity.” The new term recently rose into popular parlance after its use in a rapper’s song, and went viral across the cyber sphere as a Twitter craze; #YOLO has become a buzzword for crazy, irresponsible behavior. Got drunk last night at the party? Well, YOLO. Got a tattoo? Did some dangerous stunt? Tried meth? Spent $1,000 on shoes? Oh, y’know, you only live once. Carpe Diem. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. YOLO.
When I first heard this phrase, and the way it is commonly used, it brought to my mind the day, not long ago, when I attended the funeral of a young man named Andre. I had never met him, but I had been following his story for several years. He was only 16.
In the middle of 8th grade, Andre was unexpectedly diagnosed with leukemia. This summer, after several years of intensive chemo and painful complications, Andre’s earthly body failed him, and he passed away.
His funeral was deeply moving, and at the same time, it had a note of joy; because in spite of all the suffering—the unimaginable suffering of his illness, and the deep sorrow of his family—Andre lived life to the fullest. His family testifies that he was a miracle of moral strength and incomparable faith. He never stopped hoping that he would be healed; he continued his studies, took up new hobbies, was thankful for the blessings he had. He kept on each day doing as he ought to have done. Friends and family spoke of his beautiful smile, his determination, his love.
As I said before, I never knew Andre personally. But as I sat there listening to the testimony of his faith, marveling at his amazing trust in God's plan for him, it struck me that, while perhaps other may have experienced more than he did, this young man did more with his less-than-seventeen years than many people do with seventy.
He didn’t get to go to college. He never even had the normal “high school experience.” He was confined to a hospital bed for much of the last two years of his life. But he had only one life to live, and he made it a life worth living, by putting his all into everything he did, his love for his family, and whatever trial or task God put before him.
Many would say that Andre had a low “quality of life,” and would pity him because his sufferings prevented him from doing many things. Such people take “quality of life” as a sort of measure of how much a person is able to enjoy or experience; which is why people say that someone without money for luxuries, or someone who is wheel-chair bound, has a not-so-wonderful quality of life. That particular view of life is what drives YOLO-ists. You only live once. You only have one shot at getting as high as you can, doing daringly stupid activities, experiencing different things in this life to the fullest, they say.
But do people with that attitude comprehend what it really means to say “You Only Live Once?” On my deathbed, would I be glad if I had done those sorts of things? “Gee, I’m awful happy I won that drinking contest. And my life would have been so much less awesome if I hadn’t gone bungee jumping, or partied it up that one spring break.”
Wouldn’t I rather ask myself, “Did I spend my days well? Will my friends and family have been blessed to know me? Have I given my all for what I believed in? Have I loved others as much as I can, given of myself to help them as much as I can? How has my love borne fruit in my life and in the lives of others?”
Because in the end, it isn’t what wild experiences you had that matters; ultimately, what will matter is how you lived through each ordinary day, whether you lived a worthy life, glorifying God in all you did and pursuing Him with all your might. Yes, it can be hard; it will probably mean less cheap thrills and more living for things that really matter in an ordinary life of work and prayer--maybe even bearing terrible crosses, as Andre did--all for the sake of a far more lasting joy. It will take time, and effort, and giving your all to love to the fullest for God. But, y’know . . . you’ve got one chance. Just do it. YOLO.
Monday, July 2, 2012
“You know, Grandpa says most people nowadays are run by fear. Fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, fear of their health. They're scared to save money, and they're scared to spend it. . . . People who commercialize on fear—you know, they scare you to death so they can sell you something you don't need.”
These words, spoken by dauntless stenographer Alice in director Frank Capra’s 1938 film You Can’t Take It With You, could easily be a snapshot of modern society. The standards set today for a contemporary man, or a contemporary family, drive people to chase certain goals: having a certain kind of car, or a smartphone, or a perfect figure. Consumers dread falling short of the commercial ideal—even if they already possess all that is necessary for a happy life. Yet, they would do well to heed Alice’s inherited wisdom, because, in the face of modern materialism, Capra’s light-hearted You Can’t Take It With You rather boldly aims to redefine personal success and failure. A soul whose sights are set on material success, the film points out, ultimately loses its joy in living.
The story revolves—rather uniquely—not around the two young lovers, Alice and wealthy banker’s son Tony Kirby, but around the heads of their two families and the contrast between their personal philosophies. On the one hand is Anthony P. Kirby, successful businessman disconnected from his wife and son. On the other is Grandpa Vanderhoff, a father-figure whose zest for life is the heart of his family.
As the story begins, Tony’s single-minded, business mogul father is about to close a major deal, while, one room away, Tony is wooing pretty secretary Alice. When Tony’s mother tells his father about it, Kirby puts the matter aside as unimportant. The real center of his day, the reason he gets up in the morning and goes to work, is not his family, but his business. Grandpa Vanderhoff’s day, by contrast, is marked by acts of simple wonder at and delight in life: sharing a bag of popcorn, taking a walk in the park, sliding down a banister. He takes a genuine interest in the people he meets. Beginning a conversation with a clerk, he learns the clerk hates his job but has a special talent for toy-making, and invites the man home to dinner—and home to stay. “The same One [takes care of us],” Grandpa explains to him, “that takes care of the lilies of the field, except that we toil a little, spin a little, have a barrel of fun.”
Though his notions may seem foolishly idealistic, he simply has his priorities straight: if pursuing material success destroys a man’s happiness and love for life, it’s not worth doing. Unconventionally, each person in Grandpa’s household chooses whatever enables them to best fulfill their role as members of a family, joyfully—not whatever brings them the most success. Their lives are by no means idyllic; as Vanderhoff says, they “toil a little, and spin a little.” The family cannot scrape together one hundred dollars when asked to do so; there are even hints there have been harder times in the past. Yet, although the family lives hand-to-mouth; they are content doing so. They are happy, because they are not afraid of material failure; they concern themselves with a more important kind of success. What exactly that success is—and what exactly failure is—only becomes clear when Tony’s upper-crust parents come into direct conflict with the Alice’s colorful family.
Everyone in Tony’s life pursues material goals and consequently lives in perpetual fear. Tony’s father is afraid of failure at any step as a businessman. Tony’s mother is afraid that her son’s middle-class love interest will take a feather out of her social cap. And their associate Ramsey is the tragic portrait of a man so consumed by material business fears that it eventually quite literally kills him. Tony himself ultimately admits to Alice that fear of failure keeps him from pursuing what he really wants in life instead of simply conforming to the social expectations. “It takes courage,” he says, “You know everybody’s afraid to live.”
Such fears so deteriorate the relationships in his father’s life that eventually his father must face the bitter truth about himself: he is, as Grandpa Vanderhoff points out in a very rare outburst of righteous anger, a failure. When Kirby vehemently rejects Alice’s family and their whole class as scum, Vanderhoff loses his temper for the first time in 30 years:
“You're an idiot, Mr. Kirby,” he cries, “What makes you think you're such a superior human being? Your money? If you do, you're a dull-witted fool . . . And a poor one at that. You're poorer than any of these people you call scum, because I'll guarantee at least they've got some friends. . . . You'll wind up your miserable existence without anything you can call friend. You may be a high mogul to yourself, but to me you're a failure - failure as a man, failure as a human being, even a failure as a father.”
In Grandpa Vanderhoff’s eyes, you can’t take it with you. Fears and undue concerns for material success are ultimately irrelevant, as he sees it, because material success cannot last. Capra’s film explores how success in the world’s eyes may mean failure in reality; and failure in the world’s eyes may mean success at what is most important. It presents a striking perspective on the fear instilled in the soul by materialism—particularly relevant in an increasingly materialistic society, as it undermines the commercial messages which pervade modern life. As Capra carefully makes clear, those who trust in God, like the lilies of the field, need not be anxious about material things, what they are to eat or what they are to wear—for the most successful businessman in all his material splendor was not arrayed in joy as one of these.
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Stepping into a strange church for Sunday Mass is invariably an adventure that evokes no little amount of trepidation; it is extremely difficult to know what to expect. So, two weeks ago, as a visitor in a strange town, I found myself wondering rather nervously what kind of Mass I had walked into. Would there be a borderline heretical homily? Sketchy changes to the words of the Mass? Liturgical dancers?
At first it seemed like it would be middle-of-the-road: a quiet Midwestern parish with a school attached. The interior had obviously been built or redone in the 60’s, but there was nothing out of the ordinary, and it looked like the Mass would be conducted fairly well.
Until the music started.
From the opening hymn to the recessional, the entire Mass was accompanied by a lone soprano pounding bravely away on an electric organ, backed up by a heavy-handed snare drum. The hymns were all from the ‘70s and ‘80s: something about peace, and celebrating, and justice, and we are one people, and harmony—all punctuated by loud raps on the drum. “Let us build the city of God (BOOM-chh-BOOM) may our tears be turned into dancing (BOOM BOOM).” I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes, and strained all my attention to focus on the readings, the homily (which was decent), and the holy sacrifice of the Mass—all to no avail. When the final “Thanks be to God” was muttered—full of genuine gratitude, on my part, that it was over—and the congregation crowded quickly out of their pews and into the parking lot, I staggered out into the sunshine feeling as though I’d just been subjected to the very dregs of liturgical artistry.
Now, come to think of it, I have heard some genuinely dreadful liturgical music in my time, both lyrically painful (“Lord of the Dance,” anyone?) and musically inappropriate (saxophone jazz at the Easter Vigil), but this Mass marked a particularly depressing milestone in my experience. It wasn’t just the inane lyrics; it wasn’t just the Disney-esque, vague ‘70s melody; it was the fact that, in addition to already being bad music, it was done so badly.
I wondered why this fact was what had made the music so distracting and frustrating to me, and I remembered that “A thing worth doing,” as G.K. Chesterton once said, “is worth doing badly.” This essentially means that if something is worth doing, then it is still worth doing even if we’re not very good at doing it. Take, for instance, my kitchen garden. It’s not acres of rich, abundantly fruitful lands that yield bucket-loads of harvest; it’s a little square of Southern clay with a few scraggly vegetables vines and a berry bush or two. But growing a garden, planting seeds and reaping the fruit of your own labor, is a thing worth doing, so it’s worth doing even if one is not wildly successful at it. Learning how to paint is something worth doing—even if the artist isn’t a Rembrandt or Michelangelo. Writing is likewise something worth doing, even if it’s done rather badly—which is my excuse, anyway.
But, on the other hand, I think it would be safe to propose a corollary to Chesterton’s principle: if a thing worth doing is worth doing badly, then a thing not worth doing is not worth doing badly. It’s not worth it to fight a war over a mile of territory; it is doubly idiotic to wage such a war badly. It’s not worth doing to plant a tree in the middle of the desert where it does not belong; it would be even less of a worthy task to badly botch the job of planting the tree.
I would not have minded the mind-numbingly-mediocre music at Mass half so much, I think, had it been good music done badly. If the most a parish could get was a cantor singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” a capella, then very well: singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” is a thing worth doing. If all that the music ministry has to offer, however, is bad music done badly, then it would be better to have no music at all. Insipid liturgical hymns from the ‘60s onward are not worth doing, nor is a snare drum snapping an electric organ into meter. Why, then, must we have these things at all? Would not a reverent silence be far more conducive to prayer, to raising the mind and heart to God?
Such, at least, were my thoughts as the last pounding strains of “Here In This Place” faded away and I exited the Mass that Sunday, hoping desperately that somehow the Church will see a renewal of beautiful liturgical music—done well—in my lifetime. It will mean something of a revolution: throwing out the banal hymnals and the drums; putting more time and greater effort into seeking out good musicians, and cultivating the taste of younger generations to appreciate more traditional hymns. Meanwhile, I am resolved to stoke the fires of that revolution, by making it clear that the bad music done poorly has to go: give me good music at Mass (even done badly) or give me death—I mean, silence.