Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Christmas Letter

Yuletide Reflections, reprinted from The Catholic Young Woman

My dear readers,

The close of the year and the quiet pause afforded by Christmas break fittingly cause me to reflect on what has passed since I last posted here. Much as I had anticipated, once I left home in the heat of late summer and returned to Christendom College, my days were so full that I barely had time to catch my breath, let alone write anything.  Just as I felt I was getting used to my hectic schedule and finally getting a handle on all of my various and sundry goals and responsibilities, it was half-way through December and I was packing up to go home.

On the one hand, the time I spent immersed in the world of classes, work, choir, and friends at college went very fast—so much faster than freshman year.  “What,” I cried in early September, “It’s time for the Italian Night dance already? I thought the semester just started!” And the rest of the semester passed in much the same way. Midterms? Halloween? Winter Formal Dance? Finals? Glory be, didn’t we just get here?

Yet, when I measure my days by all that happened between one milestone and the next, I realize how much time really has passed. My life has been full—full of beautiful things, of tough decisions, of new experiences and lessons learned.

There are a thousand things I could take away from this semester and relate here to share with all of you, but if I should choose just one thing, I think it would be this: that during this semester, the new and unexpected spectrum of experiences I have gone through have made me approach truths I’ve always known with a new perspective.

One little incident comes to mind as illustrative of this lesson. During a class on the Song of Songs, my theology professor was explaining some of the deep images in that unique canticle.  “In this passage,” he said, “the Beloved is gazing into the eyes of her Lover and sees her image reflected there as in a mirror.”  From the back of the classroom, a student piped up quizzically that such imagery did not strike her as very moving or even romantic.  There was a little silence, and then my theology professor replied quietly, with a twinkle in his eye: “Try it sometime. Then we’ll see if you think differently." 

This semester has brought me trials and challenges I knew about and understood in a peripheral fashion, but can comprehend in a different and more profound way once I have passed through them myself.  It is one thing to write about how perfectionism is a fault; it’s another thing to fight a losing battle against it through papers, midterms, class readings, and finals and come out on the other side realizing my limitations.  It is one thing to write about how to be open to God’s plan for one’s life; it is another thing entirely to figure out how to be open to it in my own life.  It is an amazing thing to learn and discover (through an absolutely incredible philosophy class on Ethics) about what true friendship is; discerning how to put that truth into practice in the daily reality of living with one’s friends is another struggle altogether.  It’s humbling—and wonderful—to discover what it is like to try and really live what I believe.  

At the end of the semester, I have to admit that facing all these new challenges and experiences has made me realize, once again, the unfathomable debt of gratitude I owe to my Beloved. Everything he has placed in my path, while it may seem at the time like a stumbling block, is in fact a stepping stone to Him.  He has not chosen to show me yet precisely where my life is going, and by that He is teaching me trust Him and not be afraid of the path ahead of me:  

For I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, 
plans for welfare and not for evil, 
to give you a future and a hope.
Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me,and I will hear you.
You will seek me and find me; 
when you seek me with all your heart.
-Jeremiah 29:11-13

I wish you all a blessed and Merry Christmas! May the joy and peace of the Christ Child fill all your days! Please pray for me, and I will keep all of you in my prayers!

God bless!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Close of Summer

God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.

Summer usually is, or ought to be, something of a break from the hectic schedule of the rest of the year. It should be a period for reflecting upon God’s goodness and mercy and taking the time to notice His beauty even in little things.

For me, this summer has been filled with many blessings, both big and little; and not the least of them has been the opportunity to work at some serious writing here at my blog, at Catholic Young Woman, and at Catholic Exchange. It’s been a very good “learning experience,” as the saying goes; I’ve faced a few very important lessons, like how to address current events and how to take criticism when someone disagrees with me. It also brought me the blessing of becoming not just a guest author but a regular contributor to the beautiful community at the Catholic Young Woman.

But now the summer is drawing to a close. Although the thermometer is still wavering in the high nineties, the local school busses have already begun to make their rounds in my neighborhood and little kids are sporting new books and backpacks. Soon I too must pack away my summer gear and return the rigors of academic life.

As much as I truly love to write, while I am at school I find that my schedule is usually quite full and doesn’t allow me much time for writing anything besides papers, essays, and notes. I know that, if I let God lead me, this necessary respite from my own personal writing can be a time of spiritual growth and learning that can help me grow to deeper insight into the mercy and love of God, and ultimately help me better to write of Him. I find a comforting lesson in the wise words of Fr. Adrian van Kaam, who said:

Writers are writers for all hours of the day. 
They never take leave from writing. 
Every experience, every observation, 
all their reading, conversation,
 study, and listening
 nourish in some way their authorship.”

My heartfelt thanks go out to all of you who regularly have read my blog over the summer, for your kind comments and for sharing your own insights. I will, of course, try to write here as often as I can, so feel free to check back now and then. Please pray for me as I start the journey of a new and challenging academic year.

In Christ,

Friday, August 12, 2011

The World Is In Flames

"The world is in flames: the fire can spread even to our house, but above all the flames the cross stands on high, and it cannot be burnt." --Edith Stein (St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross).

England and the outbreak of rioting there have been very much in the public eye during the past week. The reports are all disturbing—and somewhat disorienting. I cannot pretend to understand precisely what these brutal, Twitter-organized mob risings are really about. I’m not a politician, nor a social analyst—though even those supposed experts cannot seem to agree on what is going on.
But the very notion of a riot mystifies me, and the more I learn about rioting, the more horrible it appears to me.  Riots often seem to occur for no other clear reason than a sort of mob bloodlust which brings out the most diabolical side of humanity. My brother was caught in Dublin at the time of the riots there a few years ago; he ducked into a shop and hid while Dubliners smashed Dublin’s windows, lit fire to its cars, and otherwise damaged their own city. During the Civil War, women in Richmond went on a riot, supposedly enraged over the shortage of necessities which the war had caused; they stole and wreaked havoc that even Yankee troops had not yet been able to do in that city. Confederate President Jefferson Davis himself came out and begged them to stop, taking what money he had in his own pockets and throwing it to them in a desperate attempt to appease them. They eventually straggled away to their homes . . . and social conditions in the South were not improved one whit for their mad ravages of the city which was their own home and last stronghold against the North.
In a 1934 British film about the French Revolution, an Englishman hears of the terrors Frenchmen were enacting on other Frenchmen, and remarks sadly: “Damnable, useless cruelty.” That, I think, summarizes the reaction of all sane men to the bestial violence now taking place in England. It is not only cruelty; it is useless cruelty—cruelty without an aim, cruelty without a point; evil for evil’s sake. When the riot is done and the streets are filled with the dark and empty silence of death, the rioters may sit atop their charred pile of destruction and look about at the harm they’ve done, confident that they’ve achieved . . . nothing. Do they expect to improve their social condition? To win jobs, homes, benefits from the government by treating jobs, homes, and the government with extreme contempt? Do they demand to receive the dignity due to men, when they have behaved liked animals—or devils?
All such weird riots are a stark and startling reminder of how very low man can fall; they leave us asking why men would willingly do such damage to their own home towns and countries. The riots do worse than no good; they do deliberate evil. They seem a mark of the uncivilized; but as a saner Briton, G. K. Chesterton, pointed out in The Everlasting Man, sins that are evil for evil’s sake are actually the mark of a civilization that has grown decadent: 
There comes an hour in the afternoon when the child is tired of 'pretending'; when he is weary of being a robber or a Red Indian. It is then that he torments the cat. There comes a time in the routine of an ordered civilization when the man is tired of playing at mythology . . . The effect of this staleness is the same everywhere; it is in all drug-taking and dram-drinking and every form of the tendency to increase the dose. Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense   . . . They try to stab their nerves to life . . . They are walking in their sleep and try to wake themselves up with nightmares.
Chesterton’s analogy is uncannily accurate, as any mother will testify. It is positively true that when a child wearies of his ordinary occupations, he turns most easily to mischief; that it is in a sort of wild idleness and boredom that an impish look will come into his eye and he will happily tear to pieces the book he has been told not to touch, or carefully and deliberately smear his dinner across the wall.
Perhaps the Englishmen tearing England apart are suffering from a similar “staleness” and are indeed seeking “stranger sins” as “stimulants to their jaded sense.” Perhaps they are acting precisely like over-tired toddlers in a tantrum. It may be that they are weary of their virtual online communities and social networks, and even of their virtual video-game worlds of destruction, and have decided, in a sort of desperation, to forge for themselves a brotherhood of real destruction in the real world. One thing can be certain, and must be said; no social conditions, no poverty, no failures of government can excuse such bestiality, theft and ruin and bloodshed.  I have heard commentators try to work up sympathy for the rioters by saying that it is because of this government policy or that social inequality that the rioters are rioting. If they were really starving, there might be some excuse for them to steal food, but not to set fire to homes. They are guilty of foul, brutal inhumanity—no less guilty because they may have had some reason to be unhappy.
In the end, the word used by the Englishman to describe the French Reign of Terror is the only word to describe the English riots: “Damnable.” They are doing it, quite literally, for the hell of it. If they are not stopped, if sanity and common sense do not rein them in, then it may happen that they will remake Britain in their own image, and it will become—like France in the Revolution—a living hell.  

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


If I had to name one of the most unique characteristics of my childhood, it would probably be the fact that, because of my father’s job, my family relocated every three or four years. We pulled up roots and moved so many times that the smell of cardboard boxes and packing tape makes me grow nostalgic. By the time I was fifteen, I had lived in more States than my mother had so much as visited by the time she was twenty-five. 
When I tell people this, they often ask: “What’s it like to just leave and start all over again every few years?” I usually smile and say it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds.  True, there was a little heartache of parting and the headache of reassembling an entire household every once in awhile. (Why is it that you always find the box full of Christmas decorations when you desperately need to unpack the dishes and silverware?) But looking back, through all the growing pains amid the packing boxes, I wouldn’t change a year of it, because it taught me some crucial lessons.
There is something a little shaking and soul-searching about having to leave behind what feels so incredibly permanent, like a house. But leaving my houses and finding new ones so often caused me to reflect and re-evaluate what really was lasting in my life. It took quite some time, but it eventually dawned on me that I was perpetually leaving my house—but I never left my home. My home was something entirely different from where I lived.  Even when my older siblings grew up and moved out, there were certain things about my home that remained permanent through the years when everything else changed: my Catholic faith and the love of my family, and the two were inextricably intertwined.
My mother is fond of saying, “Everything in life changes. Families grow up. Friends change and move on. The only thing in life that doesn’t change is God, and as long as He is in your heart, everything else will turn out okay.” Even for those who live in the same towns their whole lives, the passing of time will bring challenges they cannot predict and probably would not have imagined. But the love of God never changes, and as long as we are firmly rooted in that then all the rising and falling tides of life cannot break us. Without it, we will buckle under and grope hopelessly to make some sort of sense out of the strange trials and sufferings that we meet on the journey of life. Servant of God John Randal Bradburne—a wanderer himself, and a possible saint—once wrote a poem call “Strange Vagabond” that summarized it perfectly:

God’s love within you is your native land
So search none other, never more depart.
For you are homeless,
            Save God keeps your heart.

            After years of learning to cope with changes in my life, I began to gradually soak up this little lesson: that without the love of God in us, we are truly homeless. If we have it, we are at home no matter where we are or what battles we must face. After all, until we reach Heaven, we are still pilgrims on a journey. St. Augustine grasped this truth in a moment of inspiration when he wrote: “You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
There was a very beautiful family I know of that faced many changes and was forced to relocate several times. But they kept their trust in the Providence of God, though sometimes they were uncertain about whether they would even find lodging in a new town. The mother of this household was a true homemaker; her heart was always focused on the Lord. The Blessed Virgin Mary knew better than anyone that it is “God’s love within us” that makes a real home. No matter what frightening changes or unexpected experiences she faced, she trusted God, and so “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”  She was, in a sense, always at home, and made wherever she was home for her family. She is a perfect model for those of us in this “valley of tears” still facing years of changes ahead, as we learn to pack up at the end of each stage in our life and move on, knowing that whatever lies around the bend, God is our home.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The MOM Who Knew Too Much

        Robert Osborne, the long-time TV host for Turner Classic Movies, recently took a sabbatical, and a whole slew of aged actors and actresses have rallied round to fill in for their friend in introducing the movies and delivering tidbits of trivia to the audiences. As long as Osborne is taking a break and TCM is scrambling for replacements, I know exactly who they ought to hire: my mother. 
             This might sound a little silly, but I’m convinced it would be a very smart move for TCM. My mom is not famous and never deliberately made film her hobby. However, she has an uncanny capacity for remembering all sorts of interesting facts.  She doesn’t try to; she may hear something in passing just once, and remember it simply by chance.  As she’s a fan of old movies, she happens to know a prodigious amount of in-depth trivia about the entertainment industry of yesteryear. The following, for instance, is a typical scenario:
            “Mom,” I will ask as I turn on the old movie channel, “Who’s that actor? He looks awfully familiar.”
            My mother will lower her book, glance up over the edge of her glasses and, after peering intently at the fellow in question, confidently announce: “Oh! That’s so-and-so. You remember him from that Western. Later he went on to star in that mediocre ‘60’s show, which was very popular, and ran for years . . . and actually his costar in that—before she dyed her hair red—won an Emmy for her performance in that other show. . . that was before she married that fellow who was involved in the environmentalist movement.”
            When I was younger I would stare at her a minute with my mouth open. Now, I typically turn back to my movie, and reply simply, “Oh. That’s who it is.”

This little game—like having my own personal Robert Osborne sitting next to me—can make even mediocre old movies lots of fun for an incorrigible movie buff like me—sometimes. But often, I beg my mother not to tell me anything, because of one persistent problem: too much of the trivia is tragic. For example:
“Oh, look!” said my mother the other day, “That’s Tippi Hedren, the star of The Birds. You know, she was mauled by a lion . . .”
I rolled my eyes and groaned.  It’s not that I’m without sympathy for poor Tippi—quite the contrary, in fact—but this sort of thing seems to happen too often. When we spot a famous actor or actress, my mother will call to mind some particularly sorrowful point about their lives, spouses, childhoods, or deaths.

Now, I like trivia as much as the next person. But the problem is that, with me—as with my mother—it sticks, like gum on the bottom of a shoe. And so, for instance, when I sit down to watch funnyman Lou Costello play the fool, I suddenly remember that Lou was completely heartbroken when his infant son drowned.  Or instead of soaking up Pat Boone’s smooth, rich singing voice, I think of the tragedy surrounding his grandson. I watch the lovely Shelley Winters and recall she wound up a fat alcoholic. Ann Margaret’s dancing makes me think of her falling off the stage at Las Vegas and suffering severe injuries.

In fact, there almost isn’t a single famous face in classic film that doesn’t hide some personal tragedy. Every stunning silver-screen beauty or dapper Hollywood dan, no matter how famous, talented, or successful, had some suffering to bear: childhoods robbed by stardom, battles with addictions, painful illnesses, sudden tragic accidents, the bitter wages of infidelity or the heartaches caused by the deaths of loved ones.
Perhaps, then, my mother doesn’t really know too much about these Hollywood celebrities, but exactly what we ought to know about them. How can you really understand a human soul unless you have some sense of how he’s suffered? Since the start of cinema, American audiences tend to idolize the faces shining with the meteoric glory of stardom. Teens fall in love with them. Adults imitate their styles and fashions. Everyone wants to be them. A little trivia, however—a little truth—can sober us up from this detrimental idolatry, and remind us that they may be superstars, but they’re not supermen. No one, certainly no one in the celebrity spotlight, has a perfect life, free of tragedy and error. They all make mistakes and have their own crosses to carry. They suffer as much as any man on the street; sometimes, as they reap the fruit of their sins, they suffer more.

So maybe I shouldn’t complain when my mother mentions that Vivien Leigh battled mental illness, or that Clark Gable never really recovered from the death of his wife, or, as you all now know, that Tippi Hedren was mauled by a lion. Maybe it’s a needed counterbalance to keep my love of film from extending to idolizing film actors. They need neither our adulation nor our voyeuristic obsession with their romantic escapades and latest haircut. Living or dead, they need our prayers. And that is something else I hope to pick up from my mother along with the movie trivia: the habit of praying for suffering souls. Maybe TCM won’t hire her after all; but I know she’s praying for Robert Osborne and everyone filling in for him when she recalls the little facts she knows about their lives. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

(Silent) Summer Movies

I've covered a fairly broad selection famous films so far this summer, but it's high time I turned some attention to the other half of classic movies--the silent era! So, here's a list of some of the best and brightest silent movies had to offer: the comedies of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.

In all of the following silent movies, you'll get a sense of how, although the technology was somewhat primitive, it was still a fertile ground for artistic talent. Gifted pioneers emerged and began to produce unique works of art in this brand new field, constantly discovering new techniques and ways of doing things. To us, some of the special effects or shots may not be remarkable at all--but that's only because we tend to forget how original they were in their own day.   The mind-blowing special effects and stunt-man brilliance of today's films only got where it is because of people like Keaton and Lloyd who were geniuses in their own right and were willing to experiment and risk their necks for the sake of getting a laugh and making a fun movie. These actors, directors, artists, were stepping out into a completely unknown field, becoming masters of a totally new craft. They invented things like close-ups, panoramic shots, zoom in, zoom out, perspective tricks; they were discovering what worked and what didn't, and consequently laid the groundwork for every other person involved in the film industry that followed.  . . . AND, moreover, the results of their labors are lots of fun. :) 

Of course, you realize it's hard to find a good quote from a silent movie; so, to make up for that, I've put up little clips from the films themselves instead of just pictures! 

Safety Last! (1923)  
Harold Lloyd was one of the three greatest silent comedians of all time, a trio which included Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin.  Steven D. Greydanus (from Decent Films) has observed that Lloyd had a special charm unlike either Keaton or Chaplin, because while those two invented quirky "characters"--Keaton's extremely deadpan fellow with a funny straw hat, Chaplin's famous Hitler-moustached "little tramp"--Lloyd came across as simply a "common man" character who got out of--and into--scrapes by his own ingenuity, an "average Joe" persona like that of James Stewart or Tom Hanks. I agree; and perhaps I'm a little biased, but I do love Lloyd best. Here, he plays a small-town boy who goes into the big city to make good and make his hometown sweetheart proud. Then, as my brother would say, "Wacky adventures ensue."  

After you watch him dangling from that clock-face, listen to this bit of trivia: in a photo shoot a few years earlier, just at the start of his rising stardom, Lloyd picked up what he thought was a prop bomb and pretended to light his cigarette from it. However, it was a real explosive, and detonated as he held it, destroying the two first fingers and part of the thumb on his right  hand.  Some thought this horrible accident would end his career, but Lloyd didn't let this stop him. He wore a kid glove with prosthetic fingers in all his films after that, which means--that's right--he's holding on to that clock with only two real fingers on his right hand. (Also: see the real cars and people moving down below? Yes, he's that high up!) 
Another piece of trivia: his sweetheart in this--the golden-haired, child-like Mildred Davis--was his real-life wife; and he stayed married to her. 

The Kid Brother (1927) 
I would almost suggest you watch this one first, I love it so much. The story is  simple and sweet: in a family of big, brawny "manly men," out in the Old West, the runt of the family--Lloyd--has to prove himself, win the heart of the girl he loves, and incidentally save the town from disaster. Besides offering some of the very best of  Lloyd's ingenious pranks, pratfalls, and sight gags, this film also is seamlessly written with lots of fun characters (including carnival con men, neighborly country rivals, and a monkey in a sailor suit), thrilling action sequences, and a delightful little romance.  

Unfortunately, I can't find a good clip from the Kid Brother on YouTube, so enjoy this brilliant little montage of Harold Lloyd clips set (anachronistically) to the Beatles' "Help Me." 

The General (1926)
This is one of Buster Keaton's greatest and most memorable: the humorous and heroic adventures of a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. Get ready for some Yankee-bashing slapstick and more than a mild dose of chivalrous romanticism about the South. 

Like this little clip, the whole film is genuinely sweet and simultaneously funny, and a good introduction to Keaton's perpetually-poker-faced persona--a very different character doing the same sort of comedy as Lloyd, and pulling it off brilliantly. 

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)                                                    
Thinking of Keaton reminded me of this one, which is historically important for more than one reason. First: it's a hallmark of the era; big changes going on in small communities, expansion and industrialization pushing smaller businesses off the map; this takes a look at how that would play out in a small Southern town along the Mississippi. Keaton plays the fresh-faced college kid, an old steamboat captain's son, who, upon returning to town, promptly falls in love with his father's rival's daughter and then must find a way to save the family business from literally sinking. (There's a lot of subtlety in old silent films like this; keep on your toes to catch it all.) But besides all that, this one is famous for some of its unbelievable gags and brilliant comedic tricks. For instance, a hurricane whips through the town and wreaks alot of damage, but somehow Keaton turns this situation into a hilarious one by doing such things as the following: 

 No, folks, there was no CGI, special effects, or stunt doubles used there. That is Keaton himself really standing on the road as the house falls on him. His audacity and ingenuity is simply unequaled by Hollywood's performers today.  (And here's a little tidbit of trivia: Mickey Mouse made his first appearance to the world in a little black and white cartoon called "Steamboat Willy," which was a deliberate spin-off of this!)

Well, there's a fun little sampling of some of the comic genius of the silent era. Maybe, if the summer doesn't end too soon, I'll get a chance to do some of the adventures/thrillers of the pre-talkie days, like The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.). 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Coming Out of the Closet: I Am Not Charismatic

            I have a guilty secret, and I think it’s time to come clean.

First, I must explain that the city I call home has long been what might be called a hotbed of the charismatic movement, hosting multiple charismatic retreats and Praise and Worship youth events each year. Parishes across the diocese hold special Praise and Worship adoration nights. Almost every parish has a Youth Mass, at which P&W music is played, and a youth group for which the same music is played.  
Now, in a way, this is all well and good. I’m overjoyed to see people, especially young people, taking their faith seriously and praising the Lord with their all their body and soul. There are some very wonderful people whose lives have been changed by this sort of music and prayer.  So, as I say, it’s all well and good—for people who are charismatic. But after years of attending charismatic youth groups and Masses and listening to Praise and Worship Music, I have a confession to make: I am not charismatic.
            I can’t help it. I honestly did my best to “just let the Holy Spirit move me” by participating as fully as I knew how, holding my hands up and swaying and singing along with all my heart. After all, for people my age, there wasn’t all that much else available. Every youth event and every youth group is, so to speak, à la charismatic renewal.  Short of joining the “elderly and older” choir—or the convent—I didn’t really have a chance to participate in a more traditional style of music, liturgy, or praise.

            So, I tried it. But through it all, I wasn’t really satisfied. I eventually had to face the fact that charismatic prayer and charismatic music move me much less to raise my mind and heart to God than does more traditional music—and I don’t mean the 1970’s and 80’s Marty Haugen songs in the Glory and Praise Hymnal.
One of the most common assumptions in youth groups seems to be that it is easier for everyone to really “participate” in liturgy or prayer if it is cushioned with the rock-music patterns they are accustomed to.  It’s thought that Praise and Worship music is easier to sing along with, easier to “get into” than other music. I agree; but that doesn’t mean that it will better raise the mind and heart to God.  Irish drinking songs are also easier to sing along with and “get into,” but that is not an indication of their intrinsic musical or spiritual merit. Making up solo dance moves is easier than learning the complexity of the tango; but dancing the tango, once you’ve learned it, is a much more awe-inspiring way to dance.
The word “charismatic” comes from the word charism, which means a special gift given by the Holy Spirit to individuals for the good of the Church. Being “charismatic” in the Praise and Worship sense is simply not my individual gift. I find I can pray much more easily when listening to Gregorian chants and polyphonic motets by composers like William Byrd or Palestrina than to something akin to what plays on the soft rock station.  Again, for people who are charismatic, I believe God can and does use P&W to bring them closer to Him. But it is not this way for everyone. I began to be frustrated when I found that every time I confessed to a youth group that I prefer old music and am “not really a fan of P&W,” I was looked at as if I had just announced I was going to join SSPX and wear a burqa.
The response I got alerted me to the fact that the vast majority of Catholic youth in America are treated as if they would all unanimously prefer praising God to pseudo-rock than to anything else. The sacred music that has been at the heart of the liturgy for hundreds of years has just as much power to move hearts and is just as much a channel for the Holy Spirit to reach us as anything produced by a snare drum and a guitar. Why is it automatically assumed that it is better to give everyone under 21 what Matt Maher wrote last month than, say, Thomas Aquinas’ Pange Lingua? (Edit: I've heard Matt Maher's version, "Jesus, Lamb of God," but it's just not the same as even two or three guys singing Thomas Aquinas' own version a capella.)
Baseball legend Babe Ruth once wrote a sort of spiritual auto-biography entitled “The Kids Can’t Take It If We Don’t Give It.” in which he pointed out that if we neglect to pass our religious tradition and heritage on to the young, they will never have it, and we can’t expect them to one day just wake up and choose it for themselves. Teens in my diocese who are regularly fed Casting Crowns, Switchfoot, and Rich Mullins probably haven’t even heard of Palestrina’s soul-stirring Sicut Cervus.  Have most Catholics my age even been given the chance to experience really sacred music, or learn about their Catholic musical and liturgical inheritance? Are they expected to go find it on their own if they want it?
So, I love my charismatic friends, and I love the liveliness of their faith. But I’ve had a taste of the indescribably beautiful treasures the Church has to offer in sacred and liturgical music, and my question is: when do we get to share it with our youth? Because, as Babe Ruth would say: they won’t ever have it if we never give it to ‘em.    

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Encore 2: More Summer Movies!

The Four Feathers (1939)  "The army is soft, now. In my day it was different: men were men, and war was war . . ."  During a British imperialist war in Egypt, a sensitive young man from a military family, Harry Faversham, resigns his commission before his regiment is dispatched to active duty. His apparent contempt for the war and the army so scandalizes his friends and family that four of them present him each a single white feather, the symbol of a coward. Shamed into realizing that guilty fear has made him shun his duty,  he resolves to perform some act of bravery to erase the stain of coward from his name--or die trying.  This fantastically thrilling little gem from British filmmakers takes a fascinating look at true courage as it traces the adventures of this military outcast who disguises himself as a native and goes behind enemy lines to save those he loves without their support or even their knowledge, facing hellish African heat and thirst, frightening battles in which both sides are trying to kill him, and even torture.  The cinematography, for its time, is breath-taking, and the performances--especially John Clements as the hero and Ralph Richardson as his tragic best friend--are superb. A special treat in this film is  C. Aubrey Smith, a very good character actor who played many "old soldiers" in his time; this role is one of his most delightful, as a retired general who retells his favorite battle stories at every single dinner.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)  "There is no fence nor hedge around time that is gone. You can go back and have what you like of it, if you can remember. Set in a rural mining community in Wales about the turn of the century, this film takes a peak at the negative effects massive industrialization had on homes, on families, and on individuals. It's told from the perspective of a little boy growing up in the mining town where his father and brothers all work, and shows through his eyes the life-changing experiences that are part of living in a family and in a community: celebrations, marriages, illness, trouble at school, labor strikes, unrequited love, birth and death. Although the story and milieu are very different from legendary director John Ford's Old West repertoire, if any of his films is really and truly a work of art, this is it. 

Friendly Persuasion (1956) "A man's life ain't worth a hill of bean's except he lives up to his own conscience." This film is a good one for a quiet Sunday afternoon. Gary Cooper plays a home-lovin' Quaker farmer, with the sweet-faced Dorothy McGuire playing his wife (and local woman "preacher" for their Quaker community). They're "plain folks," and most of the movie is taken up by fun little family anecdotes including horse-racing rivalry between neighbors, a vicious goose, young love, and controversy over bringing music into the Quaker household. The climax is provided when the Civil War suddenly interrupts their otherwise-peaceful home and family life. There's a couple interesting themes that run through this: how, for example, in marriage, both spouses may have to compromise a little to make their marriage work. The main theme, however, is a profound one about violence and whether the Quakers are obeying their conscience or shirking their duty by refusing to fight in the War. 

His Girl Friday (1940) "You've got an old fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever, 'til death do us part.' Why divorce doesn't mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words mumbled over you by a judge."  Fast-paced and hilarious, this is a crazy comedy--with some dark, rough edges--set in the wild world of journalism in the 1930's. Originally a stage play called "The Front Page," it tells of a newspaper editor and his ex-wife, who used to be his best reporter and who is currently scheduled to marry a nice, honest small-town insurance salesman. The editor (Cary Grant), who frankly is just something of a heel, makes a last attempt to get his wife (Rosalind Russell) back by convincing her to cover one final story for the paper, about an insane man condemned for murder and a corrupt governor. The dialogue is brilliant, rapid-fire style, and Russell and Grant can snap it back and forth at each other as if they had been doing it for years. Incidentally, this was also the very first film in which characters spoke at the same time, even talking over each other (before, one person at a time would say their lines). It's also a glimpse at the mentality of the era in the casual, even flippant attitude towards marriage and divorce. (Reminds me of a certain GKC quote: "Frivolous marriage leads to frivolous divorce.")

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Room With A View

When I first arrived at college for Freshman Orientation, I was secretly hoping that I would get “a room with a view.” There is nothing so refreshing, after hours of intense studying, as stopping to stretch and gaze out a window at a pleasing panorama. I knew that if I was lucky enough to land a room on the top floor of the dorm, then I would get a view of the surrounding countryside, of the library in the distance, or maybe even a glimpse of the Shenandoah River. So, I’ll admit I was just a little disappointed when I discovered that not only was I not on the top floor, but my room was actually in the so-called “basement” level. I had a window, of course, but it looked out on the parking lot. However, I soon discovered that this particular room had more to offer than that particular view.
Our room was located just next to the entrance—not just to our level, but to the whole dorm. Because of our unique location, a lot of traffic would pass by our door every day. (This had its downside, too, of course: I remember telling my poor roommate that if one more girl slammed the door on her way out I would scream. Patience isn’t my strongest virtue.) During the normal course of the day, it happened that every girl on the floor and almost every girl in the dorm would pass by on her way to the chapel or class or the library.
In a few weeks, I began to realize that this position next to the exit was an unexpected little grace.  My roommate and I liked to leave the door open while we studied, and most days we did our homework in the comfort of our rooms, with our desks positioned so that we could easily turn and extend a cheery hello to the girls going by. They would stop by on their way in or out of the dorm, at all hours, at least to say hi and occasionally to chat. Sometimes the chats would turn into heart-to-heart talks, and before long, the girls who passed most often began to tell me about their homes, their families, their hardships and hopes. At first, when these beautiful young ladies began coming to me with heartaches or stress about schoolwork, I thought they were looking for advice, and often I would rack my brains to try and think of something wise to say, usually ending with the only thing I could think of, which was hardly original or sagacious: “Well, go pray about it, sweetheart, and trust God, and I’m sure it will turn out alright.”
However, pretty soon I understood that these girls weren't looking for advice, and didn’t need me to give any. They were simply looking for someone to talk to. They often knew what they had to do in the challenges they had to face; they just needed a listening ear, a welcoming smile; in other words, a safe harbor where they could tell someone their troubles. I began offering tea to the ones who looked like they were particularly in need of a respite; and over steaming mugs and crackers we’d unwind or open up our books to study together. Others didn't have time for tea, and they would simply drop in for a few minutes and be on their way.
Looking back over the year, I realize that God had given me that room and placed those young women in my life not simply that He might be able to use me as an instrument of His grace in their lives, but so that they could teach me. Through them my view of life could widen beyond my struggles to comprehend their headaches and heartaches, their spiritual or scholastic mountains to climb. They were there to teach me to listen, to open not just the door but the ears to my heart, to truly pay attention when my neighbor needs compassion or encouragement or just a little attention. Through them God gave me the chance to see Christ in my spiritual sisters. That is a lovely view indeed—and I don't have to live on the top floor to see it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What I Failed To Do

          A few months ago, as I was settling down in an airplane for a long flight, I found myself unable to escape overhearing a very animated discussion in the row just behind me. There were two persons involved—a young man who loudly identified himself as a Jew by birth but an atheist by choice, and an older man whose religious identity was not named. The topic of discussion was Christianity, and at one point, interrupting the older man who had attempted to say something about some respect being owed to tradition, the young Jewish atheist said:
            “If I were a Christian, or belonged to any religion, I would really go insane. I just wouldn’t be able to take it—the repetition, I mean, the monotony, the same thing over and over. Honestly, doing the same thing again and again would really drive me insane.”
            When I heard these words, I almost leapt from my seat. Instead, I squirmed uncomfortably; an answer was burning on my tongue—but out of politeness or cowardice, I said nothing.
Perhaps because I had failed to defend Christianity, what this young man had said to attack it stayed with me long afterwards. His dread of repetition and monotony was something easy to understand. It is a sort of spiritual claustrophobia, a frustrated fear of being stuck in a rut and unable to get out, of being trapped in a monotonously unsatisfactory world and dying of boredom in it. This fear may come when a soul has become too accustomed to its daily routine—even its spiritual routine—and begins to feel confined by its own repetitious habits—seeing the same circle of faces every single day, the same pattern of getting up and going through the motions of the day and returning to bed. If the soul does not have a notion of something greater and deeper and wider than itself, something ever ancient and ever new, then it will erratically reach out in a desperate search for relief from the repetition of life, with an escapist thirst for novelties and alternate realities.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it!” When we begin to feel confined by the patterns of our lives, when our world begins to feel too small, it is not because it is shrinking, but because our heads our swelling. The monotony of daily chores unbearably chafe and even daily pleasures become tedious as long as we have notions that the world revolves around us—as long as we hold ideas that are quite literally self-centered. We need not break out of our little world but only out of our little selves into the wide world, to look up and see what we really are: infinitely small creatures caught up in the tide of God’s merciful love. Then we can not only bear the monotony of life but rejoice in it. For as Chesterton wrote:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon.”

If I had only had the courage to speak up to the atheist on the airplane, I would have asked him: might your mother drive you mad with monotony if she said “I love you” every day? Will you have to be put in a straightjacket if forced to look on yet another sunset? Summer vacation has a habit of coming again and again. So do birthdays, so do meals, so does your heartbeat, God willing. You’ve happily endured such repetition since the day you were born. So you may thank God for a little monotony in your life, but you’ll have to find some other excuse to run from religion. 
That, perhaps, is what I should have said. But ultimately, I think prayers, not arguments, are needed in the endless Christian vs. atheist debate, because their frustration with things like repetition is a symptom of, not a reason for, their rejection of God. As Francis Thompson wrote in The Hound of Heaven: “Naught contentest thee, who content’st not Me.”

Monday, July 11, 2011

Encore: More Summer Films!

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)  "Don't you realize that Americans dislike having their children stolen?" An American couple (James Stewart and Doris Day) vacationing in Morrocco accidentally gets involved in a spy ring when a murdered agent whispers a crucial secret to them with his last breath.  Their young son is kidnapped in an attempt to keep their them silent about an assassination that is scheduled to happen soon; fearing for their child, their only recourse is to take the law into their own hands and track the kidnappers down before time runs out. This is Doris Day's best dramatic role, playing the grief-torn mother, and James Stewart, here as the desperate father, is always excellent. Do not confuse this one with the 1937 version of the same name; both films were directed by Alfred Hitchcock, but the remake is a vast improvement on the original. This films is possibly his best, demonstrating why Hitchcock earned his reputation as an incomparable master of suspense.  He builds the tension with excellent directing, without resorting to any of the cheap gory effects of his later films like Psycho or The Birds.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) "I'll tell you right out, I am a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.This is the quintessential noir detective film; Humphrey Bogart is at his best in the famous "Sam Spade" role, here caught up in a tangle of international treasure-hunters all vying for a famous jeweled statue of a falcon and willing to do anything to get it. Note Mary Astor as the femme fatale; she was a gorgeous, very intense actress, and often ironically cast as one of two extremes: a) dangerous, "bad" women or b) matronly, gentle, "good" women.  Also, as in The Thin Man, the original novel has a lot of less-than-decent stuff in it, but because of the code in Hollywood at that time, the filmmakers had to edit out the most objectionable content. Far from detracting from the characters or the plot, the result of the editing was a superb film. So, Hollywood, what did we learn there? 

Mon Oncle (1958)  I cannot find a quote from this movie--partly because it's all in French, partly because it's almost a silent comedy, as the dialogue is so--at first glance-- unimportant. But after you watch this movie a few times, you'll realize that it isn't just a quaint little French comedy; it's a carefully-crafted work of art with subtle and poignant, almost Chestertonian themes, and every shot and every word heard in the background is deliberately placed where it is. At the same time, its a genuinely funny story about a bumbling, humble, simple man, Monsieur Hulot (French comedic genius Jacques Tati), and the misadventures that ensue when he is given charge of his young nephew for a day. Chivalrous, modest, and especially old-fashioned, Hulot represents an older world, a French neighborhood of ramshackle brick buildings and wrought-iron balconies, little cafes, mischievous boys, street-sweepers and stray dogs. This milieu is swiftly being swept away in a flurry of modern inventions, sleek new apartment buildings, sterile homes, factories and fancy cars--the grim, largely colorless world his nephew is growing up in. This, along with M. Hulot's Holiday, is undoubtedly the best of Tati's Hulot films.

Sergeant York (1941) "I ain't a-goin' to war. War's killin', and the book's agin' killin! So war is agin' the book!" As much as we value higher education, the history of the world is bursting at the seams with men who never had it and yet were wise in the manner of common sense, and willing to fight for what they believed in.  This move is about one of those men and it isn't fictional. Alvin York, a young man from back-woods Tennessee and an uncannily good sharpshooter, had a very deep and sincere faith in God and the "Good Book" which compelled him to become a "conscientious objecter" during the draft of World War I. His objection was denied, and he was drafted anyway. This films beautifully recounts how York, excellently played by Gary Cooper, struggled to reconcile his faith with his duty to his country. 

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)  "I have a proposition--because, frankly, sir, you and I are the only two characters worth saving in this whole affair." A traveling Englishman who looks remarkably like the drunkard king in an Austria-like country is obliged to secretly fill the throne while the real king is busy being kidnapped.  Alright, maybe I just have soft spot for this one because I love Ronald Colman, starring in the double-role as the king and his look-alike. Or because I love swashbucklers. And Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. And . . . actually, I don't think there's anything about this movie I don't like.  The plot is thrilling, the action unmatched, and the characters are unforgettable, from a strait-laced, noble old soldier (a superb C. Aubrey Smith), to the beautiful princess (Madeline Carroll) torn between love and duty, and a roguish and witty villain (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) just too good to kill off in the end!  This movie is so much fun, in fact, that the 1952 remake with Stewart Granger copied this version exactly scene for scene.