Thursday, December 13, 2012

Not Waving But Drowning

--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,
They said.
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

Roman Reflections

By the grace of God, I just returned from three blessed months studying in Rome, Italy. It was an incredible experience, to say the least, and no doubt a single post could never encapsulate how amazing and life-changing this special semester was for me.  I walked through St. Peter's Square everyday to go to class. I attended Mass at St. Peter's Basilica multiple times; I saw the ins and outs of every major church, many minor churches, and the cramped, vendor-filled streets in Rome, got a taste of European culture, and made some incredible memories with my friends. (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."
--Psalm 27:8  

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

 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 fa├žade 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.

Jean-Paul Sartre
C.S. Lewis

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

With Catholic Eyes

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.” 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 Can't Take It With You

“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

A Thing Worth Doing Badly

 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.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

On Getting a Haircut and Social Networking

Author's note: an updated version of this article was recently published on Catholic Exchange, so I've replaced the old version here with the new version.

Once in a blue moon, I get my hair cut at a hair salon, and last week afforded me one of those rare occasions. The lady who cut my hair was a thin middle-aged woman with a stiff dark bob and arms heavily splattered with a rainbow of tattoos. She was efficient and excellent at her job; she also was sensitive to the fact that I, unlike many of her customers, was not a “talker,” so she resorted to talking to the other stylists as she combed and cut my hair. 

“I had a dream last night that I was pregnant again,” she laughed, turning to the woman on her right.

“Oh, Lord . . .” groaned her companion, shaking her head.

“I know, isn’t that nuts,” my stylist replied. Glancing at me in the mirror, she explained that she had sterilized herself years previously. “So it’s like not even possible,” she said.   

I squirmed uncomfortably as the conversation swiftly moved on to other topics. Somehow I felt guilty at having missed an opportunity. There sat I, a Catholic young adult with a solid Catholic education under my belt, one of the John Paul II generation that was supposed to change the world and restore all things in Christ. And I couldn’t even bring up morality in front of my hairdresser as she casually dismissed the sacred, life-giving powers of human sexuality. I just sat there, shrinking behind my big black cape and trying to melt into the salon chair.

As much as I failed to do so, I did desperately want to plant a seed, ask a question, open up an opportunity. That’s the way personal evangelization starts—or so I’m told, because, as you probably have guessed, I’m awfully bad at it. When face-to-face with a chance to speak the truth to one who thinks differently, I always seem to utterly flub it. I miss the cue and fail to speak before the topic changes, or I cannot think of what to say until hours later.

If that sort of evangelization was the only kind out there, I would be, to put it mildly, sunk. But fortunately for people like me, in our day and age, when every faithful Catholic is called upon to be a witness for Christ in a world that has rejected Him, there is a multitude of other chances, in many different fields and through many approaches. In particular, in these times there is an immeasurably vast new ground to be won for Christ, and Pope Benedict XVI has been particularly vocal in urging young Catholics to use the new tools at their disposal to evangelize that new world.

I’m speaking, of course, of the internet. There is incredible potential for evangelization in social networking like Facebook, in YouTube, in the blogging world, in Twitter. Those of us who can use these tools, who maybe even are skilled at using them, have an increasingly important responsibility to use them well, to use them for the greater glory of God. Although they are most often used to transmit secular messages, these sites can and should be used to actively proclaim the truth.  As our contemporaries, dissatisfied and longing for happiness, wander about the cyber-world seeking not only entertainment but fulfillment, we should be out there letting them know where that abiding fulfillment can be found: in Christ.

Take Facebook, for instance. It’s a social networking stream that, if not heavily polluted, can at least be pretty pointless—a hub of mindless procrastination. But precisely because it can reach so many people, it’s a perfect outlet for Christians to witness to the truth—to post about it, talk about it, proclaim it in that very public world by showing that they’re not afraid to identify themselves with their Faith and show the world what living the Christian life looks like. Catholics on Facebook can share their faith experiences with those who otherwise may never come into contact with faithful Christianity.  Moreover, because social networking is exactly that—a network—when someone connects with one person who lives the Faith to the fullest, he often quickly comes into contact with a whole group of others who are doing the same. For that reason, Catholics can use the same outlet to actively spread the Catholic position on key issues. For instance, I know an actively pro-life young woman who frequently posts pro-life images and news to her Facebook feed—and all of her “friends,” and her “friends of friends,” Christian, agnostic, or whatever, pro-life and pro-choice alike, will stumble across that taste of the truth as they browse their Facebook Newsfeed over their morning coffee—and even more people will see it if it has “likes” or comments.

That’s just one small example; but there are many other avenues of using new media for Christ that are rapidly rising in importance and influence. Catholic bloggers have in recent years dramatically increased the volume of the Catholic voice on the web on political issues, pro-life and pro-family topics.  Catholic magazines and news sites that have moved online in recent years are now reaching a much larger audience. Young adults gifted with video-editing skills have also taken huge strides in promulgating the faith to an image-and-sound-byte driven world. Such tools and opportunities are available for free to everyone with internet access; so virtually every Catholic has the chance to make the best of them. On the web, we can also expand our ability to evangelize in new media by connecting with and supporting other Catholics across the world in ways we were never able to do previously, so that together we can speak about Christ to a generation that is giving Him the cold shoulder.

St. Paul in Athens

It’s not my charism to argue apologetics over the fence with my Baptist neighbor or catechize my hairdresser on sexual morality as she evens out my bangs. There are gifted individuals that can do that, and it’s a special responsibility they are called to exercise prudently; I hope that maybe it’s a skill I can pick up with time. But right now, for those of us who aren’t so adept at being vocal in those situations but still want to be Christian witnesses, there are thousands of less time-sensitive opportunities right at our fingertips. Across the internet, young adult Catholics who understand this new world have a special opportunity to proclaim Christ, to speak the truth, and to get the message of the Gospel “out there” where our secular counterparts can find it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Adele, Fulton Sheen, and the "Hookup Culture"

The artists of our world, Fulton J. Sheen once said, have a special role; they often are the first to perceive—and point out—the real problems in a society. Artists don’t necessarily offer solutions to modern problems—but the best of them invariably identify and put before the public exactly what those problems are. This is possible because through art man can be brought to understand that what is evil is ugly (and, by contrast, that what is good is beautiful), even if he intellectually is having difficulty agreeing that what is evil is wrong. 

Lately, I’ve encountered a recent illustration of Sheen’s point; and I may begin by recalling the name popularly attributed to our society: “the hook-up culture.” Our world has seen no less than four decades of skewed moral vision when it comes to romance, since the sexual revolution of the 60s. And now, two or three generations later, the artists of our day are beginning to point out the nasty afterbirth of the free love, hookup mentality in a very provocative way. Modern musicians especially, often themselves deeply imbued with popular notions of sexuality and love, are unmistakably starting to outline the current generation’s desolate frustration and deep-seated dissatisfaction with the hookup lifestyle--in fact, it is arguably the dominant theme of pop-music from artists who write their own songs. Years of rushing into sexual relationships, inevitable and bitter breakups, have left their scars on them, and it’s coming through in their music, perfectly detailing how painful “free love” is in reality.

One such case is probably a British pop-star that has hit the top of the music world in the last few years: Adele.  This contralto’s powerful soul-style songs, which successfully rocked the boat of the American music world, have led the charts for a long while now. And they are almost all depressing. With the exception of some hopeful, committed-to-love kind of songs (like “Make You Feel My Love”), Adele’s pieces are almost exclusively—and all of her top hits are definitely—tortured, frustrated breakup songs. Her music plumbs human heartbreak, exploring the whole wild and wicked scale of tangled emotions and passions: from burning emotional desolation, to sorrowful unwillingness to let go of the past in spite of the pain, to furious, bitter vengefulness.  Invariably at the root of the anguish in these songs is a background story of having let another soul come close in love, of having given away oneself to another, only to have that gift and that sort of “love” necessarily destroyed in a culture that treats relationships as “hookups.” “Rolling in the Deep” is probably Adele’s most famous, and some fans might balk at the idea of it’s being a mark of the hookup culture. Musically, the piece is enjoyable, almost Diana Ross or Mo-Town style, but the lyrics betray that the sentiment of vengeance expressed is neither a normal nor healthy way to end any relationship:

See how I'll leave, with every piece of you
Don't underestimate the things that I will do           
 . . .
Baby, I have no story to be told
But I’ve heard one of you and I’m gonna make your head burn,
. . . .
Think of me in the depths of your despair
Making a home down there, as mine sure won't be shared.

The message beneath the music plainly conveys a firestorm of fury; although the source is somewhat vague in “Rolling in the Deep,” another Adele song about heartbreak, “Set Fire To the Rain,” sheds a little light on the situation. “Set Fire to the Rain” comes from the same album, 21, which Adele supposedly wrote about her breakup with her lover of two years, and tells her story of passionate “falling in love,” consequent breakup, and ends with some disturbing imagery describing the singer’s sense of betrayal:  

When I lay with you
I could stay there
Close my eyes
Feel you here forever
You and me together
Nothing is better 
 . . . there's a side to you
That I never knew, never knew,
All the things you'd say,
They were never true, never true,
And the games you play
You would always win, always win. 
 . . . . . .
I set fire to the rain
And I threw us into the flames
And I felt something die
'Cause I knew that that was the last time!

Although less famous than Adele, another striking artist rapidly rising in popularity is Ingrid Michaelson, whose music betrays at the same time a desperate longing for fulfillment and a painful realization that a hookup lifestyle leaves one unfulfilled. “The Way I Am,” certainly her most popular song, describes a desire for committed, faithful love:

If you were falling, I would catch you;
You need a light, I’ll find a match . . .
If you are chilly, here, take my sweater;
Your head is aching, I’ll make it better
Because . . . you take me the way I am.

While she sings of fidelity and commitment, however, Michaelson also recounts how scarred living a free love lifestyle can leave a person, in her less-well-known, post-breakup song, “Starting Now”: 

I want to crawl back inside my bed of sin
I want to burn the sheets that smell like your skin
Instead I'll wash them just like kitchen rags with stains
Spinning away every piece that remains of you
But before you finally go there's one thing you should know: that I promise
Starting now I'll never know your name
Starting now I'll never feel the same
Starting now I wish you never came into my world
It's my world, it's not ours anymore.

There is a tangible pain and bitterness in these shocking lines, which simultaneously describe both the hookup world and exactly what it does to a soul: brings it to the apex of commitment, the utmost physical indication that a total self-gift has been made, only to destroy that sense of love and leave the heart shattered and aching in the end.

If Bishop Sheen was right, and the artists of a time are the first to speak about the problems with a society, then modern music is a signpost pointing unmistakably to the modern notions of love.  There are others; Ingrid Michaelson and Adele are just two of many whose work runs along similar themes. These musician’s voices are singing some poignant truths about our world’s problems, and, while not prophetic or profound, and whether or not they realize it, as artists they are at least unanimously pointing to the same truth: the hookup culture hurts. It leaves souls desperate, thirsty for fulfillment, broken, feeling betrayed and angry. Hopefully, as the world listens to their music, it will start to listen to their words and what they have to say about our society’s stance on love.  

Monday, May 21, 2012

Our New Bigotry

For a nation whose founding document declares that “all men are created equal,” the U.S. has seen a whole lot of inequality, usually raising its ugly head in the form of discrimination and prejudice against particular minorities. We’ve even seen the widespread legalization of the most degrading prejudice: human beings transacting the trade of other human beings, treating real persons like commodities, something you can obtain if you want and dispose of at your will.

If you think I’m talking about slavery in the South before the Civil War, think again. I’m referring to something that happened earlier this very month.  According to, Kevin and Deb McCrea from Iowa had more kids than they wanted—because through the use of In Vitro Fertilization, they had 18 extra embryos. So Deb found new parents for them . . . on Craigslist. Through the public, online market, she located couples who wanted to have kids, and sent her children to be born and raised through other women.  Deb felt she couldn’t sign off her own embryonic offspring to “just anyone.” “I don’t want to give up that right to see pictures of that child and compare that child to ours,” she said, “And see what they would have looked like and if they’re healthy and happy.”

Even though she just gave all 18 away, Deb wants to keep an eye on her other kids raised through surrogate mothers, because she feels she has a “right” to do so. But the poor woman’s words clearly indicate that she has a warped sense of what constitutes responsible parenthood; she doesn’t seem to understand that “rights” only come with “duties.” Although she must have known, when she paid for a whole batch of embryos through IVF, that she would never fulfill her natural duty to raise the children, she still wants the sense of fulfillment that comes from watching them grow.  

On the one hand, Mrs. McCrea’s desire to find loving homes for the children is somewhat understandable. Yet, unlike when a naturally-conceived child is put up for adoption because it’s parents can’t care for it, the very need for these kids to have parents and homes is purely a result of man’s scientific blunderings in God’s exclusive creation-zone. Situations such as these should never arise in the first place; yet with IVF, kids without parents who want or are able to raise them are made by the dozens in a petri dish. Deb McCrea’s search for new parents for her kids is not like an unwed mother putting her child up for adoption; it’s the moral equivalent of a woman naturally giving birth to as many kids as she possibly can, only then to decide she doesn’t want them and giving them all away.

Deb says she plans someday to tell the children the truth; it boggles the imagination to know what it will be for them to learn that they were the extra ones; that their biological parents chose to make them all, but wanted just one or two of them; that they chose a sibling from the same “batch,” while the others were the leftovers whose coincidental existence wasn’t important enough—or convenient enough—to merit a life lived with their rightful home and family.

Cases like the McCrea’s are stunning examples of what is so disturbingly wrong about IVF: it encourages a mentality of irresponsible parenting under the pseudonym of compassionate solutions for couples who are having trouble conceiving. Because they want a baby, IVF advocates essentially argue, couples should be allowed to create as many children as they want and then pick a few to live, so that they can fulfill their desire for parenthood. The rest of the kids, meanwhile, are given away or remain permanently frozen in storage.

The use of IVF treats children like a product—in the way that a puppy is a product to a breeder: a cute product, a product people get emotionally attached to, but a product all the same. They reduce a real, little person to a commodity, something parents can pay money to get when they want, and dispose of as they choose to, as the McCreas have done with their “extra” kids. But children aren’t puppies; they are persons, whose value is not based on the fulfillment their parents get from seeing them grow up.

“Human beings as a commodity?” I heard someone exclaim when they read about this, “I thought that went out with the Civil War!” But it hasn’t.  IVF is a new kind of bigotry that has become legally accepted in the US—a new legal sale of human beings like products, without respect for their personhood. Just as slavery was rooted in and perpetuated bigotry against blacks, IVF is steeped in a discrimination against embryonic human babies—because it creates many at once, and arbitrarily chooses which ones of the siblings will live with their parents, or live at all, and which ones don’t.  In the same way that the slave trade in the South was based on a denial of the rights and dignities of blacks, the selection process of IVF is based on a denial of the rights and dignity of human babies.

They say times have changed; and they have. Back in the day, you had to be Catholic, or black, or Jewish, to be the object of someone’s bigotry and discrimination. Now? Well, now, you just have to be an unborn human baby.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

YOU KNOW THE FACE: A Hat-Tip to the Character Actors

          "Do not look at the faces in the illustrated papers. Look at the faces in the street." 
                                         --G.K. Chesterton 

Just before his death in 2007, 100-year-old Charles Lane had begun work on a documentary called “You Know the Face” about his life and work as a character actor.  Unfortunately, the work was never completed; nevertheless, it would have been aptly named, because from 1931 until 2006, Charles Lane appeared in nearly 400 films and television shows, making him one of the most familiar faces in the backdrop of Hollywood productions for whole generations of film-goers.

Charles Lane, looking his usual surly self
Though seldom appearing for long in any feature, Lane filled roles of vastly-varying professions, from reporters to rent collectors, from psychiatrists to census takers, from secretaries to superintendents, and yet he played—almost exclusively—the same sort of character: a sharp-nosed, practical, antagonistic, business-first fellow in spectacles.  Lane himself recognized the queer continuity of all these roles: “Having had so many small parts,” he once said, “there was a character I played that showed up all the time and people did get to know him, like an old friend.”

Walter Brennan
That notion of an “old friend” beautifully sums up the special, undervalued role character actors play in establishing a film's quality and atmosphere—the way they help make a piece of Hollywood artwork “great” or “classic.” Of course, when we speak of “Hollywood actors and actresses,” it’s tempting to think exclusively of the stars, like Clark Gable or Audrey Hepburn.  But while the stars may be the center of everyone’s attention, the truth is that they never could have made those fantastic splashes of talent and popularity without the steady acting support of the forgettable but reliable “character actors:” actors who were type-cast or continually filled minor roles that colored in the background. Recurring in dozens of films, often playing the same sort of character, as Lane did, or at least playing different roles with a soon-familiar face, character actors made films more complete. They acted like pieces of the set or colors in the backdrop on a stage: even though they were never the center of attention, by their excellence of serving their purpose they made a movie more vivid, more realistic—in a word, more like life.

Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride
as Ma and Pa Kettle 

The inimitable Edna May Oliver
The reason for this was simply because they played people you meet in “real life”: mere “fellows-on-the-street,” non-glamorous side figures, non-heroes—the sort of person you find in the doctor’s waiting room, behind the cash register, on the train. They were there precisely to flesh out the world surrounding the central characters, and consequently they often packed a punch, so to speak, into the tiny tidbit-of-a-role they had.  Good character actors are the spice and color of a film; they are the sort of people of which the world is full—the “common man” incarnate in a particular way, a personality in a crowd.  After all, let’s face it—perhaps it’s true that everyone wants to be Cary Grant (“Even Cary Grant,” as the man himself once said), but the stereotypical hero of a story can often be less colorful than the life-like characters that surround him: the dying old soldier, the hot-tempered Italian grandmother, the dottering country minister, the local drunk, the obsequious villain’s side-kick, the drawling farm boy, the loony old professor, the brusque British police inspector, the wise-cracking taxi driver. 

Victor McLaglen, a Ford regular
These people aren’t the meat-and-potatoes of a film, but they certainly are the relish; and one director who knew this full-well was the legendary Irish-American John Ford.  Ford had a peculiar talent for gathering around him a group of actors and actresses he would reuse again and again as steady characters that seem to link together all his cinema creations into a cohesive whole.  Take for instance, Ford’s cavalry films—She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, and Rio Grande—each of the movies has an almost identical cast, with a few notable exceptions, and some of the characters even have the same names in the different movies. Ford, a compositional genius, doubtless knew that standardizing his background cast could unify and tighten the impression his films were to make on his audience. When you begin watching his movies, you start to grow accustomed to seeing the same faces in their old place; it’s an evocative sensation, giving the impression that members of a family are gathering around to tell a tale together.  There is a peculiar sort of comfort and delight in seeing those familiar figures again and again, in varying roles but always solidly delivering performances that heighten the atmospheric tint of the whole film.

Peter Lorre
Guy Kibbee
         So, here’s to the character actors, the fellows in the background, the faces in the street. They spice up the stories we love and make them that more believable, because they are tastes of real life--equally full of interesting and unusual people who don’t fit the stereotypes of hero or heroine. They remind us of people we’ve met and known, even in passing, and so they have become to us—as Lane put it—like old friends.