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. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

I Know Where I'm Going

"Take a look at my wedding dress,” my friend said as she sent me a picture. I was puzzled. “Um, did I miss something? Are you getting married?” Laughing, she replied, “I meant for someday.” My friend is a planner. She’s got everything worked out for the day she marries, right down to bridesmaid dresses and where she’ll have the reception. All she needs is a groom.
           She’s one of many young women I know who love to dream about the love God has in store for them and to plan their future life. Most people, women and men alike, tend to do this to some extent. We think we know where we’ll end up and look forward with eagerness to the future we have in mind. And there’s nothing wrong with dreaming about what God may have planned for us, knowing that in the goodness of His Providence, He will lead us to true happiness if we let Him.
 But that’s the catch—if we let Him. This little clause is so fundamentally important that our lives will be drastically altered depending on whether we accept it. There is a difference between dreaming about our future and planning exactly what it will be, and it is crucial not to confuse the two. We may think we know what will make us happy—but, being faulty human beings, we can be quite wrong.                                                                                   

This paradox is beautifully explored in the little-known 1945 British film I Know Where I’m Going, starring Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller, whom some may recognize from her later role as Thomas More’s wife Alice in A Man For All Seasons (1966). She plays an ambitious working-girl, Joan Webster, who knows precisely what she wants out of life: marriage to a wealthy man and the luxury and security that will bring her. She’s not cold or heartless, but simply determined to get what she wants, and certain that if she gets it, she will be happy.
At first, it seems that Joan’s plans will come true. Engaged to one of the wealthiest industrialists in England, she finds every last detail of the day before the wedding has been carefully scheduled—from her train tickets to her arrival at the little Scottish isle where the wedding will take place. 

Yet, when she is only a short boat ride from the island, her itinerary is literally blown away, in a nasty fog that prevents the crossing. Stranded on the Scottish coastland, she falls in with Torquil MacNeil, a quiet naval officer who assists her in finding lodging with some of his friends. Joan prays that the wind will rise and clear the fog. Her prayers are answered, but not as she intended. By morning a gale is sweeping the coast, and she is landlocked still. Meanwhile, she gets to know the quaint Scottish town, steeped in local color and tradition. The people, while hard-working and living simply, live every day hand-to-mouth, in uncertainty about whether they will have money to live by, or even their next meal. This abandon to Providence is something Joan, with all her carefully-set life plans, finds hard to take. “These people must be poor,” she comments to MacNeil. “Not poor,” he replies, “They just haven’t got money. . . It’s something quite different.” They are content with their impoverished lot, because they don’t demand more than what God gives them at the present moment. The result is patient, trusting happiness.

The place starts to grow on Joan—as MacNeil does. They begin to fall in love, and Joan soon realizes that her ambitions may be ruined. She tries to ignore that God has placed in her path not the rich man of her dreams, but the penniless love of her life. Love has taken her by surprise and threatens to overthrow her special plans and redefine for her success and life itself.
It is tempting to plan exactly what we want from life. Single men and women may dream up requirements for their future spouse, exactly that tall or with this kind of hair or eyes, and with a certain kind of tastes or temperament. Parents have plans for their children. Businessmen have plans for their money. Human beings set all sorts of plans for what they want, what they will do, for how things will be in five or ten years. If they demand what they think is best, they can close their hearts to the grace of God and shut themselves off from the mysterious workings of His Providence. Even in the seemingly-unremarkable path of ordinary life, we have to recognize we cannot know what is around the bend—and cannot always control what it is. It is a question of humility, of knowing we are not God and therefore cannot determine everything in our lives. If we fail to do this, we will remain unfulfilled and suffer anxiety, frustration, unhappiness—and, sometimes, unrequited love.
The greatest blessings of our lives may come as complete surprises. After all, what is a miracle but a sort of reckless and impossible surprise? Illness or health, pain or pleasure, failure or success may all be the steps laid before us on the climb to Him. We must simply trust Him enough to let Him surprise us.