Monday, December 31, 2007

I Am Legend: Light Up the Darkness

It is difficult to know how to review these without spoiling them

In brief, I can say that there are some definite parallels between them and yet they have a completely different feel. Both are cautionary tales about man's meddling with things that he should not. Both leave Robert Neville as the sole survivor of an insidious disease that either kills the infected or completely changes any survivors into monsters which prey upon normal people. In the book the people look normal but actually are regular cross-hating, garlic-shunning, sunlight-hating vampires. In the movie, the people become animalistic monsters that the girls and I dubbed "zom-pires" as they seemed a strange mixture between fast moving zombies and vampires.

The book, written in 1954, is fairly typical of a genre of science fiction of the time. The details of Neville's life are told completely from his thoughts. Between the daily details of making stakes to kill vampires, teaching himself science to try to identify what has caused the disease, and his struggles with loneliness, there are flashbacks from his dreams which fill in what happened to his wife and daughter. Neville was a worker in a plant before the disaster, not a high level intellectual at all, and thus is more of an "every man" than one would expect. I actually found this quite interesting and was riveted right up until the last chapter, which surprised me by entirely changing the entire tenor of the book for me. I will not say more because the I don't want to give away plot points. As I say, they are often parallel to the movie, but made for different reasons with different results which provides quite an interesting contrast when considering both presentations of the story.

The movie is also of its time and turns the scenario into an action-thriller which nonetheless remains strongly life-affirming and redemptive. The movie functions well as a tale of the end-of-the-world (images of abandoned New York are still flashing into my head two days after seeing the movie), an action/horror movie (those zomb-pires are freaky strong and scary with lots of sharp teeth and ear piercing howls), and a story that illustrates what is good about man as exemplified in Robert Neville. Neville in this scenario is a high level scientist who did not cause the disease but is dedicated to finding a cure and carries on his experimentation daily in a thorough fashion. Flashbacks are provided in dreams which fill us in on his family and what left New York City in the disastrous state in which it is presented.

The elements that bring the movie most strongly to life are the detailed touches such as herds of deer in New York, "renting" DVDs each day, a scene with Shrek (of all the unlikely things), and Robert Neville's stubborn dedication to finding a cure for the disease. This seems nonsensical at one point as the disease clearly has won and one wonders why he bothers. However, this is brought into focus by his telling of his hero Bob Marley's reason for putting on a concert two days after being shot by a gunman.
The people that are trying to make the world worse never take a day off, why should I? Light up the darkness.
All things considered I much preferred the movie to the book. That is not to say that there are not plot holes or flaws in the movie that some such as Roger Ebert have complained about. There is still running water for example. However, these also are things that the original book didn't bother explaining. The author, for all his dedication to various details of survival, left completely unexplained such things as running water, electricity, getting gas for the car. Movie viewers are unlikely to mind either.

The point of the movie is to tell the story and it does so in a compelling fashion. Well done indeed and it is going on my list of the year's best movies.

Note: Although this movie is PG-13 it is definitely horrifying in many of the situations and not suitable for younger children. Hannah and Rose saw a family with a boy of about 8 or 9 sitting near them. Thankfully, after about half an hour they left. I think that is just about the time that Neville is setting off with his flashlight ... a sequence so very suspenseful that I spent much of the time breathing deeply and deliberately looking around the audience just to break the tension. With that said, the violence is quick and not prolonged so that there are not scenes of a disturbingly graphic nature. It was quite well done in implying those scenes or showing them quickly enough that one is carried on in the action.

Cross-posted at Catholic Media Review.

Did Deacon Greg Miss His Calling?

After months of waiting and wondering, last night I finally got to see the movie version of "Sweeney Todd." I'd seen the stage production years ago, with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn, and knew to expect something different with Johnny Depp wielding the razor. It is different. Very different. It's a brooding, disturbing, urgent, ominous, grisly, sweeping "Sweeney."

And it's also something I never expected: heartbreaking.

It's a story of revenge, and like all of these kinds of tales, the moral is the same: revenge begets revenge. (Or, as "Othello" puts it, "Sin will pluck on sin.") The grudges we nurse can destroy us -- even more so, when we believe that settling those grudges will, in fact, redeem us. When Sweeney throws back his head and sings, "I will have salvation," he's not talking about going to heaven, but to hell. And hell consumes, almost literally, the second half of the story, with bodies being burned and chimneys belching black smoke and corpses piling up like the last scene of "Hamlet."
Definitely Deacon Greg should have been a movie reviewer. Read the rest for his thoughtful and compelling commentary. I already was dying to see this and ... darn it ... this just makes it worse!

Cross-posted at Catholic Media Review

The crying children, the music, the way people are dressed ... distractions at Mass

As we participate in the Eucharist, not only do we participate in Christ's sacrifice on Calvary but we are called to share in that sacrifice. Just knowing this should change how we view everything that irks us at Mass. Are you:
  • Suffering mental anguish -- like a crown of thorns is weighted upon your head?
  • Weighed down by worldly concerns -- like the weight of the cross is on you?
  • Feeling powerless -- like you are nailed to a cross?
If we take away a sacrificial attitude toward the Eucharist, we are likely to fail to see the connection between our lives and what we do at Mass. We are apt to sit in judgment, waiting to be entertained (whether we are conservative or liberal, what we want to see differs but the attitude is the same). When we fail to bring a sacrificial attitude to the Eucharist, our participation seems at times to be modeled more after Herod's banquet, where Simone's dance cost the Baptist his head, than after the Last Supper of Our Lord, where there was every indication that partaking in this banquet was likely to cost the disciples their own lives. (Indeed, ten of the twelve were martyred, Judas took his own life, and John survived being boiled alive in a cauldron of oil.) ...

Participation in the Eucharist requires that we die to ourselves and live in Christ. If we want to get the most out of the Eucharist, then sacrifice is the key. This is what has been lost on many of us and if we want to reclaim all the spiritual riches that are available to us we must relearn what it means not only to "offer it up" but indeed to offer ourselves up.

Now I want to be clear that what I am proposing in this book is not the "victim-ism" that was sometimes prevalent in the older spirituality of "offering it up." In every situation we are free to choose how we will respond to an event: we can blame someone else for what is happening, or we can feel powerless and do nothing. It is my contention that neither of these responses is Christ-like. The experience of "offering up" our lives to God needs to be a positive and co-redemptive act. Thankfully, with God's help we are all capable of freely choosing to respond in this fashion.
There are things that will drive anyone to distraction at Mass and new convert Will Duquette and his family are dealing with noisy children, specifically. Anyone who is annoyed at Mass would do well to go read his reflections found here, here, and here. He and his family are dealing with their distractions in a mood of charity and common sense that many of us would do well to emulate. They are providing an excellent example of a positive, co-redemptive way to offer up oneself during the Mass.

I, personally, tend to reflect upon the fact that the first Masses were held in households, especially during the times when the Church was under extreme persecution. You would have had children crying, animals wandering around, flies and fleas abounding, and many other distractions that we do not have to think about today. Keep your eye on the prize, I often remind myself. I am here to worship and meet Christ in the Eucharist and so are all these other people, whatever distractions they may offer. I dare not let myself think of the times I, unwittingly, have been a distraction to others. Because, of course, I'm perfect, right? Ha!

Seventh Day of Christmas: Optional Memorial of


The last day of the year is also the feast of St. Sylvester — bishop of Rome in 314. Constantine gave him the Lateran Palace, which became the cathedral church of Rome. Many legends exist about Sylvester. He supposedly cured Constantine from leprosy and later baptized him on his deathbed.

New Year's Eve, along with its innocent gaiety, is really a day for serious reflection. On the eve of the civil New Year the children may join their parents in a holy hour, in prayer and thanksgiving for the gifts and benefits which God has given them in the past year, and to pray for necessary graces in the forthcoming civil year.

Read more at Catholic Culture.

Be Careful What You Ask For

I believe in signs. I believe that prayers are often answered. I believe that God will indulge us from time to time because we are precious to Him and He delights in our delights. But I hope I've finally learned to stop asking for what is freely given in His own time.
formation has a good and thoughtful post about "baiting God" or, in other words, asking for a sign. I especially love being reminded that God delights in us and will give treats as an indulgence. That takes me back to "relationship" and it is too easy for me to forget that at times. Especially at this time of year, I think that increased awareness of God in our lives is so interesting to think over.

That post made me cast back my mind to a time when I didn't believe, asked for a sign, and wound up ponying up first ... only to be given a whopper of a sign.

I think back to a time when we didn't ask for a sign but got a miraculous one anyway.

I think of a time when I was being hounded by God (yes, hounded and haunted and hunted and pestered to distraction) in discernment of my role for the Christ Renews His Parish team. I mean to say the Holy Spirit used scripture, that "small, still voice," people's offhanded comments, and more to whap me upside the head. On one hand, once I figured out what was going on, I was pleased. On the other hand, I was considerably freaked out. Not easy to accomplish simultaneously, but I managed without any problem at all.

Those are just the big examples, not the small instances that pop up here and there, usually when I least expect it. I really tend not to ask for signs as I figure that if I am "listening" or aware enough then I'll hopefully see things unfolding (as with Rose's college choice ... at one point it was like standing in the middle of the runway looking at the airplane circling overhead and feeling that God was standing there signalling where to land ... truly amazing). Not that I don't need a good whap with that holy 2x4 every so often. I also have a dread of getting in the habit of treating God like a vending machine (insert one prayer, receive one sign) because that completely ignores the relationship and so much more about our lives of faith.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Well, Well, We've Got Two Extra Chapters of Daniel in the Bible


"We" meaning Catholics. I knew there were books the Protestants didn't include such as Tobit (and what a shame that is ... it is fantastic and a favorite of mine). However, this morning, having forgotten to pick up my Magnificat for the daily Mass readings and having already set my timer (to be sure I put in some quantity as well as quality time with God) ... I just did a Bible flip and wound up at chapter 14 of Daniel. Really great and I found it quite absorbing.

Specifically I was at verse 13 and I will paraphrase the story (read it here). The king shows Daniel a living dragon, says it is a god and tells him to worship it. Daniel disposes of the dragon quite elegantly, the mob protests his getting rid of a god (as well as another one from earlier in the chapter) and the king responds by tossing Daniel in a den of hungry lions. They leave him in there for 7 days and I was most impressed by the level of detail. For instance, God sends an angel to the prophet Habukkuk to bring Daniel something to eat. When Habukkuk tells the angel that he doesn't have any idea where either Babylon or the den are, the angel seizes him by the crown of his head and whisks him by his hair off to feed Daniel. I just loved that.

Picking up my brand new Archaeological Study Bible (which has an adamant "yay Protestant Biblical books choice!" cheering section of the introduction) I was curious to see what they might have for entries on those pages. Surprise, surprise, surprise!

The Book of Daniel didn't end at all as I expected with the story of Susannah in chapter 13 and Daniel exposing various false gods in chapter 14. The Protestant Bible only goes to chapter 12.

And here is why.
The Hebrew and Aramaic sections of the Book of Daniel thus far dealt with, are the only ones found in the Hebrew Bible and recognized by Protestants as sacred and canonical. But besides those sections, the Vulgate, the Greek translations of Daniel (Septuagint and Theodotion) together with other ancient and modern versions, contain three important portions, which are deuterocanonical. These are:
  • the Prayer of Azarias and the Song of the Three Children, usual}y inserted in the third chapter between the twenty-third and the twenty-fourth verses;
  • the history of Susanna, found as ch. xiii, at the end of the book;
  • the history of the destruction of Bel and the dragon, terminating the book as ch. xiv.
The first of these fragments (Dan., iii, 24-90) consists of a prayer in which Azarias, standing in the midst of the furnace, asks that God may deliver him and his companions, Ananias and Misael, and put their enemies to shame (verses 24-45); a brief notice of the fact that the Angel of the Lord saved the Three Children from all harm, whereas the flame consumed the Chaldeans above the furnace (46-50); and a doxology (52-56) leading on to the hymn familiarly known as the "Benedicite" (57-90). The second fragment (ch. xiii) tells the history of Susanna. ... The last deuterocanonical part of Daniel (ch. xiv) contains the narrative of the destruction of Bel and the dragon. ...

The Greek is, indeed the oldest form under which these deutero-canonical parts of the Book of Daniel have come down to us; but this is no decisive proof that they were composed in that language. In fact, the greater probability is in favour of a Hebrew original no longer extant. It is plain that the view which regards these three fragments as not originally written in Greek makes it easier to suppose that they were from the beginning integrant parts of the book. Yet, it does not settle the question of their date and authorship. It is readily granted by conservative scholars (Vigouroux, Gilly, etc.) that the last two are probably from a different and later author than the rest of the book. On the other hand, it is maintained by nearly all Catholic writers, that the Prayer of Azarias and the Song of the Three Children cannot be dissociated from the preceding and the following context in Dan., iii, and that therefore they should be referred to the time of Daniel, if not to that Prophet himself. In reality, there are well nigh insuperable difficulties to such an early date for Dan., iii, 24-90, so that this fragment also, like the other two, should most likely be ascribed to some unknown Jewish author who lived long after the Exile. Lastly, although the deuterocanonical portions of Daniel seem to contain anachronisms, they should not be treated -- as was done by St Jerome -- as mere fables. More sober scholarship will readily admit that they embody oral or written traditions not altogether devoid of historical value. But, whatever may be thought concerning these literary or historical questions, there cannot be the least doubt that in decreeing the sacred and canonical character of these fragments the Council of Trent proclaimed the ancient and morally unanimous belief of the Church of God.
No matter which Bible you use, do go read chapters 13 and 14 of Daniel. I found them both to be ripping stories and (most important of all) to have some good food for thought.

As a side note, I checked the Archaeological Study Bible out of the library for several weeks before adding it to my Christmas wish list. All the notes, articles, and commentary are about such things as historical/cultural notes, archaeological discoveries, artifacts, and more. If you go to their site they have sample pdfs to examine. I use it in conjunction with my The Catholic Study Bible or, in the case of my current reading of Romans, the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible.

Dean Koontz and His Catholic Faith

March Hare mentioned, upon reading this quote, that she didn't realize Dean Koontz was Catholic.

For those whom it may interest, here is an interesting interview with Dean Koontz where he talks about his faith with Tim Drake.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Curt Jester Reviews "In This House of Brede"

This book is certainly no pious stereotype of perfect contemplative nuns, but instead a book that reads more like an autobiography than a novel. The characters in the story are so real that you forget you are reading a novel. From the abbess down to the novices each person described could easily find their counterpart in real life.
Read the whole review. Y'all know that I am a fan and it is nice to see that Jeff enjoyed the book also.

Something I rarely see mentioned about Godden's books but that one commenter pointed out is that Godden's books often have unsettling elements which can often be painful to think about. I think about the way that the youngest child is ignored practically to the point of abuse in Thursday's Children, the way that Lovejoy's mother has abandoned her in An Episode of Sparrows, Philipa's secret in In This House of Brede. I haven't read all of Godden's books but I think that the only one that I have read where I can't remember something of the sort included is The Kitchen Madonna.

I think it is because Godden doesn't sugar-coat life. She shows the worst side of human behavior and we find it painful because we know just how it would feel to be treated like that. However, she also shows the best side and it is a redemptive side that I find extremely rewarding. For me, this mirrors life and I think that Godden does it with a subtle yet sure touch. Perhaps most amazing thing is that Godden manages to show those bad qualities in extremely good, non-offensive prose. That is an art that is lost on many modern writers.

When Atheism Backfires

Michael Coren (found via Brandywine Books) writes about the "banality of atheism" pushing him to investigate faith to see if there was something more worthwhile to be found. Lo and behold, he has been a Christian now for 20 years. With the advent of the so-called new crop of atheists, he hasn't found their arguments much different than the old ones.
Then, just recently, the tarnished old arguments from the flimsy and trendy were re-published in new editions by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and we were all supposed to run away and hide. So I read them. Then began to laugh. It's the emperor and his new clothes. Naked, quite naked.

Nothing new here. Nothing clever or challenging, either.

Busting with errors, hysterical, clumsy, nasty and obviously incredibly frightened. Suddenly, I realize what's going on. It's that God again, helping to strengthen my faith. "The best they can do," He's saying, "is blast you with the same old nonsense they threw at you when you first thought of coming my way."
We have all heard the objections to Christianity that are continually trotted out by those who fancy themselves the first to pose such questions. Heck, I used to believe a couple of them myself. However, I wish I'd have had someone on hand who could have disposed of those objections with the simple logic shown by Coren. I especially appreciated his responses to the questions of "If God were good, He would make Himself obvious" and "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Go see what he says.

All this made me realize that I tend to store up what I consider the deal-breakers for doubters' objections to faith. Coren now has provided what will become my first salvo to those particular questions I mentioned above.

As to the question of Christianity being an invention and necessity for the weak to be able to get by in life, my favorite is still that comment by former atheist John C. Wright:
To those of you who think religion is a self-delusion based on wish-fulfillment, all I can remark is that this religion does not fulfill my wishes. My wishes, if we are being honest, would run to polygamy, self-righteousness, vengeance and violence: a Viking religion would suit me better, or maybe something along Aztec lines. The Hall of Valhalla, where you feast all night and battle all day, or the paradise of the Mohammedans, where you have seventy-two dark-eyed virgins to abuse, fulfills more wishes of base creatures like me than any place where they neither marry nor are given in marriage. This turn-the-other cheek jazz might be based any number of psychological appeals or spiritual insights, but one thing it is not based on is wish-fulfillment.

An absurd and difficult religion! If it were not true, no one would bother with it.
As to the supposedly scandalous accusations about the crimes committed in the name of Christianity, we all wish those were not true but it is undeniable that the Church is made up of people, which is to say ... sinners. Which always turns my thoughts to this quote which says it all.
The church is always God hung between two thieves. Thus, no one should be surprised or shocked at how badly the church has betrayed the gospel and how much it continues to do so today. It has never done very well. Conversely, however, nobody should deny the good the church has done either. It has carried grace, produced saints, morally challenged the planet, and made, however imperfectly, a house for God to dwell in on this earth.

To be connected with the church is to be associated with scoundrels, warmongers, fakes, child-molesters, murderers, adulterers and hypocrites of every description. It also, at the same time, identifies you with saints and the finest persons of heroic soul within every time, country, race and gender. To be a member of the church is to carry the mantle of both the worst sin and the finest heroism of the soul ... because the church always looks exactly as it looked at the original crucifixion, God hung among thieves.
Ronald Rolheiser

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Leave It to God to Use You

The basic thing is that I never ask myself what the result of any action will be--that is God's concern. The only question I keep asking myself in life is: what should I do at this particular moment? What should I say? All you can do is to be at every single moment as true as you can be with all the power in your being--and then leave it to God to use you, even despite yourself.
Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom
I had to revised my conversion story slightly. A specific part that I never spelled out is that Hannah came home and started pushing us to go to weekly Mass because her religion teacher in kindergarten, Mrs. McDaniel (a woman whose vocation clearly is to teach kindergarten, she is amazing), asked the children who went every week. She then told those who didn't raise their hands that they needed to go home and tell their parents they should be going to Mass every week. As we all know, Hannah went right home, obeyed orders, and ... well, the rest is history.

A couple of weeks ago I glimpsed Mrs. McDaniel at Mass as I sometimes do and realized that I never had thanked her. For her that was a routine part of teaching religion, but considering people's touchy feelings these days (yes, even at a Catholic school), I know that she was taking a risk in telling those little children to go home and push their parents to go to Mass. Of course, I am so very grateful that she did as it changed my life completely as well as that of our family.

I began thinking that I needed to tell her what a difference she had made, but she was always too quick in slipping out the door. Yesterday, at the 11:00 Christmas Mass, she came in. I thought, "Ok, today I am going to be so quick, I am going to catch and tell her." Then she sat down in the pew in front of me. In the place directly in front of me.

I wasn't going to lose a chance like that. I tapped her on the shoulder, meaning to ask her to stay after Mass so I could talk to her. Instead, the whole story poured out (abbreviated and very quickly) into her startled ears. She put her hands to her face, tears came to her eyes, she hugged me. As so often happens, of course, she had no idea that God used her to plant that very specific seed in the one determined person that Tom and I would not disappoint ... our little Hannah.

At the end of Mass, she turned to me again and told me that she had needed so very much to hear that message of making a difference, that I had no idea of what it meant. True enough, I didn't. However, I had that thought suddenly planted about staying alert to thank her and then she sat right in front of me with friends, where I never see her sit. This Christmas gift was coming from a bigger place than me. God never stops moving, never stops working, especially at Christmas Mass.

If you enjoy this blog, then Mrs. McDaniel has touched you too. Aren't we all happy she did her job so well, that she cared enough to send those little children home with that message for their parents? There is no telling how many people's lives she has touched through her devoted teaching of kindergarteners through the years. I am simply the one who was there to speak the words at that moment. I am positive there are many, many, many others who owe Mrs. McDaniel a large debt of thanks also.

On all their behalves let me say again, "Thank you, Mrs. McDaniel!"

Monday, December 24, 2007

I'm Out of Here ...

... until after Christmas! My prayer is that everyone has a very Merry and blessed Christmas everyone and I'll be back on Boxing Day (a.k.a. Dec. 26)!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Who Should Direct the Hobbit?

Since Peter Jackson is declining. Jeffrey Overstreet suggests Brad Bird and I second that suggestion. Read the reasons why at his place ...

He wil rejoice over your with gladness, and renew you in his love ...


Look at the options for the first readings for today's Mass. I forget that even as we look with joy and anticipation to the Lord's coming, even more does he eagerly long for it.
Hark! my lover–here he comes springing across the mountains, leaping across the hills. My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag. Here he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattices. My lover speaks; he says to me, “Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one, and come! “For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance. Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!

“O my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the secret recesses of the cliff, Let me see you, let me hear your voice, For your voice is sweet, and you are lovely.”
Song of Songs 2:8-14

or

Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has removed the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies; The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear. On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem: Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, He will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.
Zephaniah 3:14-18a
This is followed by the Gospel of reading of Luke 1:39-45 where Mary goes to Elizabeth immediately after Jesus' conception. Notice how she went "in haste." From the first seconds of his time among us Jesus hurries to see us (a la the Father in my favorite parable of The Prodigal Son). Also, it is impossible to miss that Mary's role as servant is always to show us Jesus, to point the way to her Son.

Much thanks to The Curt Jester for generously providing our Advent candles!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

"Rescuing your people ... I can't really say it is our prime objective."


Are we ready for Lost? I know I am.

Letting Go and Going Deeper

Winter preserves and strengthens a tree. Rather than expending its strength on the exterior surface, its sap is forced deeper and deeper into its interior depth. In winter a tougher, more resilient life is firmly established. Winter is necessary for the tree to survive and flourish.

Instantly you see the application. So often we hide our true condition with the surface virtues of pious activity, but, once the leaves of our frantic pace drop away, the power of a wintry spirituality can have effect.

To the outward eye everything looks barren and unsightly. Our many defects, flaws, weaknesses, and imperfections stand out in bold relief. But only the outward virtues have collapsed; the principle of virtue is actually being strengthened. The soul is venturing forth into the interior. Real, solid, enduring virtues begin to develop deep within. Pure love is being birthed.
This quote, found at Wittingshire seems like one more gentle reminder of a truth I've come face to face with in the last few weeks. In taking up lectio divina again and reading about it, this theme is echoed.
THE ART of lectio divina begins with cultivating the ability to listen deeply, to hear “with the ear of our hearts” as St. Benedict encourages us in the Prologue to the Rule. When we read the Scriptures we should try to imitate the prophet Elijah. We should allow ourselves to become women and men who are able to listen for the still, small voice of God (I Kings 19:12); the “faint murmuring sound” which is God's word for us, God's voice touching our hearts. This gentle listening is an “atunement” to the presence of God in that special part of God's creation which is the Scriptures.

THE CRY of the prophets to ancient Israel was the joy-filled command to “Listen!” “Sh'ma Israel: Hear, O Israel!” In lectio divina we, too, heed that command and turn to the Scriptures, knowing that we must “hear” - listen - to the voice of God, which often speaks very softly. In order to hear someone speaking softly we must learn to be silent. We must learn to love silence. If we are constantly speaking or if we are surrounded with noise, we cannot hear gentle sounds. The practice of lectio divina, therefore, requires that we first quiet down in order to hear God's word to us...
Melanie Bettanelli's feeling it too, and then pointing us toward Fr. Philip whose homily speaks also of the emptying out that we may be filled.

Perhaps it is simply appropriate to the season, to that looking forward in Advent to the One who comes to complete us, to fill that empty "God-shaped" hole in our hearts.

All I know is that in the letting go, the taking up again of lectio, I am finding a quiet peace that is the perfect antidote to the rushing of Christmas preparation. Indeed, it makes the Christmas preparation simpler and calmer, despite the fact that I am doing nothing different than usual ... on the outside, that is. On the inside, I am listening ...

What Does "the Incarnation" Really Mean?

Our church bulletin insert from last Sunday.
Considering the Truth of the Incarnation

“No worldly mind would ever have suspected that He Who could make the sun warm the earth would one day have need of an ox and an ass to warm Him with their breath; that He Who, in the language of Scriptures, could stop the turning about of Arcturus would have His birthplace dictated by an imperial census; that He, Who clothed the fields with grass, would Himself be naked; that He, from Whose hands came planets and worlds, would one day have tiny arms that were not long enough to touch the huge heads of the cattle; that the feet which trod the everlasting hills would one day be too weak to walk; that the Eternal Word would be dumb; that Omnipotence would be wrapped in swaddling clothes; that Salvation would lie in a manger; that the bird which built the nest would be hatched therein—no one would have ever suspected that God coming to this earth would ever be so helpless. And that is precisely why so many miss Him. Divinity is always where one least expects to find it. ...

No man can love anything unless he can get his arms around it, and the cosmos is too big and too bulky. But once God became a Babe and was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, men could say, “This is Emmanuel, this is God with us.” By His reaching down to frail human nature and lifting it up to the incomparable prerogative of union with Himself, human nature became dignified. So real was this union that all of His acts and words, all of His agonies and tears, all of His thoughts and reasonings, resolves and emotions, while being properly human, were at the same time the acts and words, agonies and tears, thought and reasonings, resolves and emotions of the Eternal Son of God.”
Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Life of Christ

-------------------------------------------------------
In our meditations upon the Incarnation we encounter many familiar images. This is natural and to be expected. It is automatic to think sentimentally and comfortably about the little babe, the adoring parents, singing angels, startled shepherds, and Magi with gifts, while traditional carols echo in our ears.

However, as Fulton Sheen reminds us, the reality of the Incarnation is not comfortable at all. It is God breaking into human time and nature and history to effect a miracle so outrageous that no one would have thought it up in their wildest dreams. The Second Person of the Trinity willingly takes on our limited human nature, purely for love of us. Shocking? Yes. Amazing? Yes. But comfortable? No.

This also is a good reminder that it is very easy to read into Scripture what we would like to see. Pulling the truth out of Scripture, also called exegesis, is considerably more difficult. That truth may prove quite a bit more surprising than we expect. God does have a habit of showing us truth in surprising ways.

To think of the Christ child at Christmas is natural. Undeniably those are the images of the season. However, the meaning of this baby for us and for all mankind is far from a sentimental picture. Jesus comes to us as a baby so we will learn something of his real nature and of the beginning of the path that he will tread and that we must follow.

Pope Benedict XVI helps us to consider further the layers of meaning in the Incarnation. In a Christmas homily* he said:

“God’s sign is the baby in need of help and in poverty. … God’s sign is simplicity. … God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendour. He comes as a baby – defenceless and in need of our help. … He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child. He wants nothing other from us than our love, through which we spontaneously learn to enter into his feelings, his thoughts and his will – we learn to live with him and to practise with him that humility of renunciation that belongs to the very essence of love. ...”


In our meditations upon the Incarnation we encounter many familiar images. This is natural and to be expected. However, let us not settle for comfort. Let us dig deeper and discover the true nature of the Lord, he who is Love incarnate, who came to show that love for you and for me.
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* Read online Pope Benedict XVI’s entire homily from Midnight Mass, Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord.

Story of my life ...

Click on the image to enlarge.
See more of these cartoons here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Now That is Giving It Up For Your Art ... Matt Frewer I Salute You!

Everyone thought that Max was computer generated, but computers couldn’t do that in 1986. In reality our actor, Matt Frewer, had to spend hours every day having makeup and prosthetics applied to him, including plastic hair and shiny chest piece.

He was then shot on greenscreen, the video was squashed in the Ampex ADO effects box, and the moving graphics were composited into the background in the switcher.

Some video editing (linear, of course) introduced his unique “scratch” effect, complemented with audio effects. Finally, the whole thing was output to a monitor and reshot on set with live actors. Not a computer to be found.
Creative Cow reminds me of how much Tom and I loved Max Headroom, which still inexplicably is available only on old VHS ... the show that still holds up after all these years.

Download the current issue of Creative Cow in pdf form at their website.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Helpful Catholic's Guide to Discerning Other People's Vocations For Them

One of Disputations' best charts ever. Its funny because its true. (I'll be snickering for a while over this one ...)

You Can Know God's Will. But Will You Want to Do It?

Over and over again this past week, I've found that the challenge is not usually knowing what God's will is...it's following it. There have been some occasions where I really don't know what I am supposed to do and can only go forward in meekness and blind trust. But, more often, when I pray about my anxiety, God's path for the resolution of the situation is actually pretty clear: it involves stuff like smoothing over tense interpersonal situations with great humility and love; resolving financial stress by admitting things I don't want to admit and committing to sacrifices I don't want to make; making overwhelming situations manageable by taking a hard look at my priorities (like, say, stopping half way though a blog post I really wanted to finish to open mail instead) and asking for help when I need it. And so on and so on. Not surprisingly, it keeps coming down to stuff like sacrifice, humility, loving openly and selflessly, patience, being willing to be vulnerable, etc. In other words: really hard stuff that I don't want to do.
Jen at Et Tu?
I feel ya, sistah!

I realized earlier this year that I almost always know what I should do but spend quite a lot of mental effort trying to justify my way out of doing it. Often this is over a real no-brainer and something fairly simple like attending a Holy Day of Obligation Mass (If only they picked more convenient mass times. What would those convenient times be? Well, to be honest ... how about never?)

I don't have to get in a prayerful mindset the way that Jen describes (of course, I'm battling out and out disobedience here, not dealing with anxiety as she is and that's a whole different problem). I already know. I'm like the three-year-old who is coming up with excuse after excuse, trying them out all the while knowing that none of them are good enough.

When I finally give up and give in? Oh, the relief of not struggling any more!

Now that I have realized this pattern, I try to recognize it earlier and just give in ASAP. No matter what I will have to do the "right thing" that I am trying to avoid ... but now without all the added stress of arguing with Papa about it.

I will double back and add that the times I haven't known what to do and prayed about what to do in a tough situation, I almost always get that "little thought" floating from the back of my mind that shows the way. Sometimes when I'm extra dense I get a stern, smackdown. Yes, it's happened. (Which was one of the things that convinced me I wasn't just "making up" what I wanted to hear. I'm always much gentler with myself than God sometimes is.) Nothing makes you jump up and follow marching orders like getting yelled at.

Go read all of Jen's post. There's much more and, as always, it's all good stuff.

Monday, December 17, 2007

I Am Legend. Go See It.

That's Scott Nehring's advice and I, for one, think its always a good idea to follow Scott's advice. He says, intriguingly:
I am Legend is very much worth seeing. Not only do you get a very effective zombie flick (if its fair to call it that) the piece is very Christian in its approach and overall theme. It is very rare to see God place such a central role in a major release film.
They had me at "zombie." Well, to be honest, they really had me at Will Smith. Ahem. Anyway, Nehring's recommendation has my interest to a fever pitch.

Now if I'd only not realized that it is ONE WEEK AND ONE DAY away from Christmas. Excuse me while I breathe into a paper bag to calm my hyperventilating ... at least the thought of Will Smith and zombies will help keep me calm while I whirl around finishing things up.

A Few Reactions to Frankenstein. Ok, Really Just One Reaction.

To the book, not any of the movies.

I'm listening along with CraftLit , about one episode behind. As Heather at points out, Young Frankenstein really is not a bad representation of the book at all, especially Gene Wilder's take on Frankenstein's character.

... what a SHALLOW IDIOT Frankenstein is!

First, when he said he was going to make his creation 8 feet tall, I was waiting for a reason to do this. Oh silly me, no reason. Just seemed like a good idea at the time I suppose.

THEN, when he is horrified at his creation because he's ugly. And what does he do? Goes off to take a nap!

Then Frankenstein comes back with a friend and is only HAPPY to find the monster gone? No thoughts about where he's gone, what he might be doing ... just worry that his friend might have seen him.

I'd like to give that guy a good slap!

Of course, this resonates all the more because I read this morning that scientists think they are on the verge of creating original DNA strands and inserting them in cells to see what happens. I think they all need to read Frankenstein first ...

"But, Jeff, ... what are you doing for the kingdom?"

Jim Gartland walked toward a group of four gangbangers who stood in the shadows next to a brick building, just beyond the yellow light cast by a a nearby street lamp. He was scared. Their gang affiliation was clear in the way they wore their clothes, their hair, their shoes. They were out on patrol. It was a hot night in September, and Gartland--dressed in a Roman collar, comfortable chinos, and a pair of Teva sandals--was walking the neighborhood and talking to people. He slowly approached the group, his hands in his pockets, and tried to look self-assured. He knew they were watching him His white face shone in a sea of Latinos.

This was one of Gartland's first face-to-face-interviews, and it's worth nothing that as he approached the young gang members, no one had his back. In a literal sense, he walked the streets alone, following the clearest orders he received form his superiors, to "go out and meet people and tell us what, if anything, we should do." In a figurative sense, Gartland was conducting the feasibility study with very little support from his fellow Jesuits. Even as he walked the streets, many of them were voicing their opposition to the idea of a new ministry, particularly a school. ...

As Gartland drew near the gangbangers standing in the shadows, they turned slowly to face him. He was surprised by how young they seemed, with thin mustaches and beards, and tattoos emblazoned on their shoulders and arms. Still, they succeeded at appearing menacing. Gartland could barely manage to say, "Hi , guys."
If you had told me at the beginning of the weekend that I'd be reading a book about a school start-up and absolutely riveted, I'd have scoffed.

As happens so often, I'd have been wrong.

This is a book of all the little stories that add up to a big picture, in this case the opening of a school based on a completely original learning approach in the poor Hispanic ghetto laden with crime, gangs, and no dreams of a future. We see intertwined the lives of students, the lives of those who will run the school, and the unfolding of the story in a compelling documentary style. I am loathe to share many of the details of the story because part of what has left me so fascinated is watching each hurdle arise and actively wondering how it is going to be overcome. This is not only an amazing story, it is storytelling in a immersive style as we travel with each person on the way. We not only see the personalities, they share with us their personal growth along the way.
The rope course was a hit with the students and an epiphany for Kendall. "At the end of the day, the students were all climbing this wall and I remember one of the girls looking up and saying, 'I'm not going.' I said, 'I won't force you. But you should try. I'll go up there with you.' I thought it'd be a piece of cake.

"We climbed the wall, and when I got up there, I started looking down. I kept telling myself I was safe--I was strapped into a safety harness and wearing a helmet--but every part of my body was telling me I wasn't. My legs were shaking and my heart was pounding. It was really scary. I only realized then how much I'd been asking the students to do. All year I'd been telling them they had noting to be scared about at work. Standing up on the ropes course, I realized how I hadn't been aware of their fear. When we came down, the girl looked up at the wall and said, 'You know, Mr. Kendall, I never thought I could do that, but I did.' She was just gazing up at the wall. And that's when I realized that this was the best thing we'd done all year. I wanted every one of our students to be able to say, 'I never thought I could, but I did.'"
It is also an education into those who would label the Jesuit order as being of a "type." It is a reminder that there are many good people who want to make a difference but simply don't know how until they are offered the opportunity. It is a wake up call that many of those mired in gangs and crime don't aspire to that life, they simply have no clue of how to live a "normal" life that seems as far from their experience as a moon landing.
... During admissions interviews, Kendall, Judy Murphy, and Rosy Santiago learned that some of the incoming students had literally never left their neighborhoods. Some had never been downtown, never been in an elevator or on an escalator ...
In spite of all this ... the lack of funds, the lack of interest on the part of most potential students, the lack of any sensible model to follow, the fear and opposition of those who saw it threatening established schools ... a diverse group of people all found themselves immersed in the dream to serve those who needed it most and who could themselves help to make a difference in the neighborhood of Pilsen. The story is compelling and you will want to read it.

Kudos to Loyola Press for continuing to publish books (They Come Back Singing, A Jesuit Off-Broadway) that take us into other, sometimes uncomfortable, parts of society and our world to remind us that our cozy little corners are not the only thing there is and that God is at work in all of them.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Because of love!"

This was my favorite chapter from They Come Back Singing (reviewed here). I read it three times because the dynamics of the people's responses and the way the teaching built gripped me by the throat. I loved it. This is long but worth it.

Much thanks to Loyola Press for allowing me to excerpt this chapter. I typed this in myself so if you see typos let me know.
Kogwon Narju

Every day here takes me into new experiences, deeper experiences, yet linking me with the past. I am an old tree growing steadily but always with a new growth of leaves and blossoms. Grace and love move in my heart, and each place and event becomes a new sanctuary of the mystery of my faith.

Yesterday I traveled to the west side of the Nile with Ratib to do a one-day seminar in the settlement village of Cochi. When we arrived, after two hours of driving in the rain and ferry delays, I talked strategy and plans for the seminar with my lead catechists, Kenyi and Osura, as people were coming in to the chapel. Nearly a hundred people there.

It is Lent, so I focused on the theology of the season and how it fits into the church year. That led into a discussion of the life of Christ and why God even bothered to send his Son. What I asked, is the point of Jesus' suffering and dying for us? In these seminars, I use Scripture and lots of acting to engage the group as much as I can in a dialogue about our topic. I know that they have the truth within them. My job is to tease it out and help them claim it.

We were at it for more than three hours.

At the heart of the teaching was the fact that we sin and are forgiven and loved by the one who creates us, the one who sent his only Son as the promise of his love and forgiveness. We are loved sinners.

I asked everyone: "Well, what is sin?"

They gave a variety of answers: "murder," "adultery," "gossip," stealing," selfishness," "hate," "not being faithful to God."

"Are we all sinners?"

The congregation, in a convinced chorus: "Yes, all are sinners."

I pointed to a man in the front row. "Even this old man here?"

"Yes, all are sinners."

"Even this beautiful young mother and her child?"

"Yes, all."

"But surely not Kenyi, your good and holy catechist?"

Lots of nodding and laughs. "yes, all." (Kenyi cracked up as I shook my head at him in mock disapproval."

"But surely not me, the priest? A sinner?"

Now there were lots of snorts, and a chorus of "You, too!" I acted hurt. More laughing from the congregation.

Then I asked, "Did Jesus tell us any stories about how God forgives our sins and loves us in spite of our sin?

There was hesitation, and then a hand went up: "yes, the prodigal son."

"Could you tell us that story?"

The woman stood up and utterly nailed the parable; she was animated, capturing all the attendant emotions and convictions of the story. I asked her to come forward to play the role of the parent of the child who spends his inheritance and then returns to fall on his parent's mercy. She was a frail-looking woman, maybe forty-five, wearing a colorful green and black headpiece. Another person was chosen to be the wayward child, and they acted out the moment of the boy's return after blowing all his inheritance in Kampala. The son fell on his knees, begging forgiveness from his mother. She picked him up and embraced him, showing unconditional acceptance of her son.
While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him tenderly. (Luke 15:20)
To the woman, I said: "Why did you forgive your boy?"

She responded, "Well, he is my son. I must welcome him and forgive him."

"But why must you forgive your son?"

From the back of the chapel, an old woman exclaimed, "Kogwon narju!" It is the Bari for "Because of love!" -- the ultimate explanation of the mother's act and of the Incarnation. The mother in the drama nodded her head in agreement. So did I.

To the boy, I asked: "Why did your mother forgive you?'

"Because I am her son."

"But you are a selfish and greedy son."

"But she loves me."

I kneaded this truth; Kenyi was pacing me now, figurative fingers on the pulse of my heart, seamlessly tying toegther in Bari my theology and rhetoric.

I instructed the actors to sit down' everyone present applauded. Then I asked a man and a woman in the chapel, Josephina and Mawa, both parents, to come up.

I asked Josephina: "Would you buy exercise books for your daughter who needs them for school?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"I want her to have the right materials so she can finish school."

"Why?"

"Kogwon narju--because I love her."

I turned to Marwa and asked the same question.

"Yes," he said, for the same reason.

I said to everyone in the chapel: "Now remember, we are trying to understand how much God loves us."

Then I said to Mawa: "You daughter has to go to Kampala for a medical procedure. Will you raise the money so she can go, and so you can go with her?" Such a trip costs forty dollars in this land where one dollar is a fortune.

"Yes, if I can, I will do everything in my power."

"Why?"

"Because I love her."

When I asked Josephina the same question, she didn't miss a beat: "I will cut firewood and sell grain and borrow from friends so that she can go."

"Why?"

Before she could answer, I turned to the congregation, listening intently, and asked them for the answer.

In a single voice they responded: "Kogwon narju."

I turned to Josephina again: "And if the doctor says your child's kidneys are failing, but she can be saved by a transplant of one of your kidneys--a serious operation in which she will probably live and you might die--would you do it? Would you give one of your kidneys?" (Everyone in the chapel was gripped now, leaning forward, trying to answer the question for themselves.)

"Yes," Josephina answered firmly. "I have lived my life"--said this woman in her early thirties--"and my daughter deserves to live." Smiles, nods, and sighs from the people.

"Why would you do this?"

"I love her. Kogwon narju."

Now I asked Mawa what he would do.

He hesitated, then said, "I have two other girls; if I die, who would provide fo rthem? Perhaps it is best that my daughter die." In a flash I was thinking of all the families I have known in three different refugee settlements who have lost at least one child, some five or six or seven.

"And if the doctor says you will not die if you donate one of your kidneys?"

"Then I will gladly give one of my kidneys."

"Why?"

"Kogwon narju."

I asked them to sit down. The chapel was buzzing. It was a good drama, but it was not over.

The next question I posed to all. "Suppose a doctor comes to you and is trying to find a volunteer for a kidney transplant for a sick person in the village. You look like a possibility as a donor. The person will die without a transplant, and in giving your kideny you may die. Would you do it?

Someone in the back asked: "Who is it?"

I answered slowly: "It is your worst enemy."

Silence.

Then lots of head shaking, nervous laughter, bewildered looks; an old man in the back walked out, waving his arms as if to say, "This is crazy talk." Kenyi laughed as he translated the gentleman; I think he softened it for me. But the old man returned, interested to know what people would say. A mother, nursing her baby directly in front of me, couldn't stop laughing. There were lots of puzzled looks as the people sunk their teeth into the question.

The hands started to go up.

"No way."

"Never for my enemy."

"I would give my kidney. Jesus died for his enemies; am I his follower or not?"

"Humanly, this is impossible. Perhaps with the grace of God, but who has that grace?"

"How is it possible to love this person if in our death our dependents will be without us?"

The chapel was abuzz; everyone was talking--to themselves, to me, to their neighbor, to God--a hundred people engaging their faith, engaging the spirit of God's heart. I reminded them of our question: How great is God's love?

After much discussion, we concluded the seminar. Kenyi and Osura took everyone through a recap of the day's teaching in Bari, with no English to obstruct things. Then they asked the people for an evaluation of the day. They were unanimous: this has been good teaching; we must do it again.

As we left, happiness moved across my heart like the Nile's morning breeze over my face, It was stiflingly hot, I was tired and hungry, the trip ahead would be long and bumpy, I was surrounded by so much poverty--yet I was filled with consolation. It can't be just joy at a job well done. Is it not the joy of the Spirit in me, the joy of God in me?

Ratib smiled reflectively as he downshifted over the last difficult terrain to the main road. He was happy that the day had gone well and that the people were appreciative. Ratib, a Muslim, is my biggest fan.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

"You know, Mom, we're just thinking about your immortal soul."

Hannah's words when she and Rose recovered from a fit of hearty laughter after hearing of the one-too-many compliments I received this week.

Ah, yes, sweet humility. Always delivered so well by those you love most. I can always count on the girls to keep my feet firmly on the ground.

Although, those very words left me feeling well satisfied. When your 19-year-old is reminding you to think of your immortal soul you get a feeling that you've done ok in her catechesis.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Dear Baby...

The baby-keeper-cause film of the year has been Bella, an earnest indie by University of Texas alum Alejandro Monteverde about a pregnant waitress (yes, another one) befriended by a soccer star. Bella has been endorsed by everyone from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who wrote a "review" of the film, to Laura Bush. Here's guessing the same people won't be singing the praises of Juno. They certainly didn't give it up for Knocked Up. When I called Knocked Up a family movie in my review I was bombarded by e-mailers appalled at its partying and swearing. This just in: People who party and swear have families too. Sometimes they're even happy.
Vognar makes a good point in his article from earlier this week in the Dallas Morning News. There are many movies this year involving unwanted pregnancies that variously and ultimately resolve the conflict with the baby being born. That is good news these days and perhaps a sign that the culture is every so slightly on the move for a change from "a woman's choice" being the vanguard phrase. A very good article and one that I recommend. I think registration is required but its free.

God, Are You Really Going to Pull This Off?

They Come Back Singing: Finding God With the Refugees
by Gary Smith, SJ
An African Journal
How can something be sad and glad at the same time? ... "All unhappiness," says Mrs. Quin, "as you live with it, becomes shot through with happiness; it cannot help it; and all happiness, I suppose, is shot through with unhappiness." ...
Rumer Godden,China Court
Although the above quote is from a different book entirely, it is the one that kept coming to me when I struggled with summarizing this book. In its simplest form it is a compilation of letters, journal entries, and scene-capturing essays by a Jesuit priest, Father Gary Smith, of his six years spent in Uganda ministering to the Sudanese refugees. As he is immersed in ministering to this pilgrim people who have suffered what seem unsurvivable hardships and sorrows, he also is lifted up by their complete trust in God's loving kindness. In a country where the people are displaced, every family has lost a minimum of two children, where the lack of three dollars can mean the difference between medicine and death, one does not expect to find perpetual joy in God's presence and plan for them. Yet it is always there. This also is a continual witness to Smith's own experience of God's loving kindness which he sees expressed through the people and through his own sufferings in this place of privation. Perhaps it is best expressed by Bishop Drandua one day in conversation.
... "I have been nourished by my position," he told me, "just as surely as the faithful are nourished by me. I believe that the Spirit is constantly renewing the church; it is a river which cannot be dammed. So the Spirit renews the bishops." He paused and added, "If they are open." His reflection was as powerful in its simplicity as it was in its theology. Drandua's conviction that the Spirit renews the church, now and forever, educated or uneducated, stands strong in its truth. Maybe that is the convert in me talking. God will not abandon the church and it will always grow, if not in numbers, then in the quality of love found in its members and in its capacity to be renewed and transformed by the Holy Spirit.
Just as Smith was, we are immersed in the people of Africa. I was personally touched by the fact that these people are from the Sudan. As I have mentioned before, a nearby parish has a ministry helping Sudanese refugees, and the local Central Market has a large number of them as workers. I especially feel connected because we have a lot of Sudanese refugees in our neighborhood working at the local grocery store. It thrills me to see them work their way up from grocery cart fetchers and bag boys to checkers. They invariably are the most considerate and careful workers (and this is in a store that is chock FULL of very good workers, believe it or not). I always go to one of them if I can and have struck up a friendship (superficial I admit) with several of them. They will wave me into their line or chide me for not being around lately. So as I read the book I could easily picture picture the people being like these fellows that I already know slightly. However, you do not need any personal connection to feel involved with the people in this book. Smith shows us their hearts and his as well.

This is a good book for more than one reason. As with the best books of this sort this is both uplifting and thought provoking. Just this week in Scripture study, our priest reminded us that we are incredibly privileged compared to most of the world. We talked of the parable of the rich young man and thought of all the "things" we have and all the "things" we want. Inevitably I thought of this book as I was about halfway through at that point. I must hasten to add, Catholic theology points out that there is nothing wrong with "things" as long as we view them rightly in the big picture and are unattached. However, here we are shown a people who often have no "things," whose only earthly attachment possible is to the people around them who often taken by sickness and death, and who still praise God's goodness. The contrast with our lives is striking. We see much sadness but as Mrs. Quin says above, it always is shot through with happiness. It changes Smith's view of the world around him, raises him to God often, and if we read it with an open heart, will do the same for us.

This book will be out in February and I submit that it would make a superb Lenten reading devotional. We then can ponder wealth, attachments, love, faith, and service to those around us. I have a favorite chapter that I have received permission to excerpt which you can read here.

Loyola Press has another chapter available to read here.

Highly recommended.

Cross posted at Catholic Media Review.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Who should be the Grande Conservative Blogress Diva 2008?

We all know it is The Anchoress, right? She really, really wants to win so if you love The Anchoress like I love The Anchoress, go vote!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action by George Weigel

I am waiting for my copy to arrive and this review by The Curt Jester is just whetting my appetite. I like Wiegel's logic and writing style as a rule so this should be interesting. Go check it out.

The Anchoress hasn't finished but gives the first four chapters a solid thumbs-up.
... frankly, I am hoping that every presidential candidate, every prospective cabinet member and every serious journalist will read it.
She has some specifics from the books to share.

Now I really can't wait to get it.

An Advent Story


Brandywine Books posted this true story last year and I liked it so much that I am reposting it now. Just a little something to remind us of why we are standing at that window, waiting for the light ...
When Marvin was a young teenager (around the 1930s or early ‘40s, I imagine), he asked his father if he could go with the other kids to some entertainment event (he didn’t say what kind). His father said it wouldn’t be appropriate and told him no. Marvin said he was going anyway, and headed out.

“If you go out without my approval,” his father told him as he reached the door, “this house will be locked when you get home, and you’ll have to sleep somewhere else.”

Marvin refused to back down. He left. He enjoyed the event.

That, he said, was the short part of the night.

When he got home he found the house dark, the doors locked. Even that window in the basement that the kids could sometimes work loose was locked tight.

Marvin stood in the dark, thinking about his options. It wasn’t winter, but it was fall and the night was getting cold.

He remembered a sort of loft in the chicken coop which his brother and he had appropriated as a “secret place.” It had a sort of a mattress and a ratty quilt.

He went into the chicken coop and climbed up. The “mattress” was there, but the quilt was gone.

Lacking other options, he lay down on the mattress and curled up in a fetal position. The cold wind blew in through the cracks. The coop stank of chicken droppings. There was no way to sleep. He lay there in the darkness hugging himself, shivering. The hours passed slowly. He wondered if he could make it through the night.

Then, at last, he heard a door open. He heard a creaking sound as someone climbed the board ladder to the loft. Someone put a pillow under his head, lay down and held him close, and pulled a quilt over both of them.

In the darkness, he heard his father say, “Marvin, when I said that if you disobeyed me you’d have to find another place to sleep tonight, I didn’t say that I would sleep inside.

And so that pastor taught his son the true meaning of the Incarnation.

Wish I’d had a dad like that.

Wait. I do.
Much thanks to The Curt Jester for generously providing our Advent candles!

Discerning Truth in Popular Culture

The bulletin insert from last week, obviously timed to coincide with the release of The Golden Compass.
How Do We Discern Truth in Popular Culture?

“It is not, then, that we hold the same opinions as others, but that all speak in imitation of ours. Among us these things can be heard and learned from persons who do not even know the forms of the letters, who are uneducated and barbarous in speech, though wise and believing in mind; some, indeed, even maimed and deprived of eyesight; so that you may understand that these things are not the effect of human wisdom, but are uttered by the power of God.”
St. Justin Martyr, The First Apology*

-------------------------------------------------------

The Da Vinci Code. The Chronicles of Narnia. The Golden Compass.

These are just the latest in a long string of controversial works that often make Christians mount massive boycotts sight unseen. If the book or movie is for children the result is often that the works are forbidden, also sight unseen, by worried parents. This often has the result of making that forbidden fruit seem all the sweeter. An unintended consequence of such behavior is to confirm to the secular world that a Christian’s basic behavior is to condemn something.

Conversely, there always are plenty of “gurus” ready to direct our minds and take our money. Most recently this is evidenced by The Secret, which promises to reveal “the Law of Attraction” which has been passed on through the ages to make all our dreams come true. Promises such as these are often offered with the “Christian” label on them and just as often are swallowed hook, line, and sinker without a second thought.

We know that not everything good must be called “Christian” in order to have value, as St. Justin Martyr reminds us above. Essentially he is pointing out that, whatever the source, truth is from God who Himself is all Truth. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to name but a few, would not have been able to mine Greek philosophy for the nuggets of truth that contributed so richly to the bedrock of Catholic theological understanding if that were not the case.

Likewise, not everything presented in the secular world as “Christian” is always true. Where there is money to be made, there are people who will trade on good will to take hard earned dollars. Even when something is reliably “Christian” it does not necessarily contain the full truth that is found in our Catholic faith.

How do we discern what is harmful and what is not? There is one simple solution in both situations. We need to know our faith. We need to consider the world around us through the lens of that faith. If one is already in the habit of considering advertisements, television, movies, books, news, politics and more in a Catholic context, then assessing new material is a matter of course.

We must be educated, find trustworthy information, weigh opposing opinions, ask questions, and possibly review the actual material in question. Only then should we reject or accept stories and ideas, whether fully or in part. In short, it means taking responsibility and teaching our children to think and discern just as responsibly.
This can be quite a challenge. However, it is a challenge that is rewarded richly and that becomes easier and more enjoyable with time.

A side benefit is that you will have some fascinating conversations with your children or friends that may be broader and deeper than ever before. This not only educates us but adds to the richness and interest of everyday life. You can’t lose!

Our faith does not reject stories and ideas simply because of so called code words like “magic.” Our faith does not embrace hollow promises which come without the basic truth of Christ. God has given us Christ and the truth, the Church and her teachings, and our hearts and minds to use in His service. Let us put them all to good use in discerning true from false in popular culture.
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* St. Justin Martyr’s First Apology was written around 155 A.D. in Rome to the emperor as a defense of Christianity.

Our Lady of Guadalupe


MEMORIAL
The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego on Tepayac hill near Mexico City on the 9th of December 1531 to ask for the construction of a church there in her honour. After the miraculous cure of his uncle, Bernardo, this Indian peasant brought to his Bishop some roses that he received from Our Lady as a sign of her request. As the flowers fell from his cloak to the ground before the astonished Prelate, the image of the blessed virgin, which is venerated in the Basilica of Guadalupe to this day, was miraculously impressed on the simple garment before their eyes.
In Conversation With God Vol 7: Feast Days, July-December
What has always fascinated me is the symbolism of the image that was on the cloak. TSO says:
One of the interesting things about the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is its teaching potential. Though she looks glorified, with stars and rays of sun coming from her as was predicted in Rev. 12, she is no goddess. Her hands are folded in supplication, her posture indicating that she is interceding for us at the throne of the God.
Indeed, he is right. There is so much in that image that speaks to Catholic hearts through symbolism.

However, there is much more to Our Lady of Guadalupe's image than that. As with all good Catholic images there is abundant symbolism that was specifically designed to speak to the hearts of the people to whom she brought her message ... the Aztecs. I remember when our priest put out a flyer about this and I was just knocked out at how meaningful every single thing in the image is. I really like this explanation.
The miraculous image produced on the apron or tilma of Blessed Juan Diego is rich in symbolism. The aureole or luminous light surrounding the Lady is reminiscent of the "woman clothed with the sun" of Rev. 12:1. The light is also a sign of the power of God who has sanctified and blessed the one who appears. The rays of the sun would also be recognized by the native people as a symbol of their highest god, Huitzilopochtli. Thus, the lady comes forth hiding but not extinguishing the power of the sun. She is now going to announce the God who is greater than their sun god.

The Lady is standing upon the moon. Again, the symbolism is that of the woman of Rev. 12:1 who has the "moon under her feet". The moon for the Meso-Americans was the god of the night. By standing on the moon, she shows that she is more powerful than the god of darkness. However, in Christian iconography the crescent moon under the Madonna's feet is usually a symbol of her perpetual virginity, and sometimes it can refer to her Immaculate Conception or Assumption.

The eyes of Our lady of Guadalupe are looking down with humility and compassion. This was a sign to the native people that she was not a god since in their iconography the gods stare straight ahead with their eyes wide open. We can only imagine how tenderly her eyes looked upon Blessed Juan Diego when she said: " Do not be troubled or weighed down with grief -- Am I not here who am your Mother?"

The angel supporting the Lady testifies to her royalty. To the Meso-American Indians only kings, queens and other dignitaries would be carried on the shoulders of someone. The angel is transporting the Lady to the people as a sign that a new age has come.

The mantle of the Lady is blue-green or turquoise. To the native people, this was the color of the gods and of royalty. It was also the color of the natural forces of life and fecundity. In Christian art, blue is symbolic of eternity and immortality. In Judaism, it was the color of the robe of the high priest. The limbus or gold border of her mantle is another sign of nobility.

The stars on the Lady's mantle shows that she comes from heaven. She comes as the Queen of Heaven but with the eyes of a humble and loving mother. The stars also are a sign of the supernatural character of the image. The research of Fr. Mario Rojas Sanchez and Dr. Juan Homero Hernandez Illescas of Mexico (published in 1983) shows that the stars on the Lady's mantle in the image are exactly as the stars of the winter solstice appeared before dawn on the morning of December 12, 1531.

The color of the Madonna's dress is rose or pale-red. Some have interpreted this as the color of dawn symbolizing the beginning of a new era. Others point to the red as a sign of martyrdom for the faith and divine love.

The gold-encircled cross brooch under the neck of the Lady's robe is a symbol of sanctity.

The girdle or bow around her waist is a sign of her virginity, but it also has several other meanings. The bow appears as a four-petaled flower. To the native Indians this was the nahui ollin, the flower of the sun, a symbol of plenitude. The cross-shaped flower was also connected with the cross-sticks which produce fire. For them, this was the symbol of fecundity and new life. The high position of the bow and the slight swelling of the abdomen show that the Lady is "with child". According to Dr. Carlos Fernandez Del Castillo, a leading Mexican obstetrician, the Lady appears almost ready to give birth with the infant head down resting vertically. This would further solidify her identification with the woman of Rev. 12 who is about to give birth.
You can read about this apparition of Our Lady in more depth here.

Some more about conditions in Mexico at the time Our Lady appeared as well as a prayer for abortion victims can be read at Ave Maria. She also provides a link to further symbolic information as well as details about the images seen in Mary's eyes.

UPDATE
The Curt Jester has some myth-busters about this apparition, which he hastens to assure us he does regard as a miraculous event. However, it is a good reminder that it is just too tempting sometimes to make a miraculous thing even better by embellishing ... tch, tch, tch.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Speaking of Pop Culture

Rev. Lovejoy: Wait a minute! That sounds like rock and/or roll.
The Simpsons
Sympathy for the Devil is Abp. Chaput's header for his review of The Golden Compass.

Nice...

Now I've got that bluesy-rock sound rollin' round in my head for the drive home.

Again. Nice...

Thanks Abp! (No wonder I love that guy!)

The Story So Far: The Golden Compass and The Bishops

For anyone who is new to this situation, which I have been watching with some bemusement since The Golden Compass debuted last week, here's the scoop.

First...
... the USCCB (a.k.a. Catholic Bishops) prints a "rave review" of The Golden Compass. Which I actually don't have a problem with as long as they also note the moral complexity, ambiguity, and problems inherent in the movie (which they didn't ... yep, it's Brokeback Mountain all over again ...).

Then ...
... New Line sees the review, does a "chop shop" on the wording, rearranging it to make it really strong and puts out an ad.


Next ...
... many pithy and ironic comments are made by many observant bloggers (go team!), et al and the ad is pulled.

Meanwhile ...
... much complaining and questioning is done to the USCCB by practically everybody reading their movie review.

(A Word from the Fringe)
A side commentary: I am not sure who is reading those reviews ... I haven't for years as they are not usually even decent movie reviews. Certainly there is not what I would call good moral guidance often available which is what I would expect from Catholic bishops. If I have a question on that front I turn to either Decent Films where Steven Greydanus is primo or to Christianity Today reviews (an evangelical publication ... I think ... which is doing the job that the bishops should be doing).

Back to the story ...
... so now the USCCB has pulled the review altogether.

Without comment.

Which is a comment in itself.

For more info and links ...
... this story is all over the place, but I enjoy this story by Christian movie critic Jeffrey Overstreet because he has the outsider's point of view. He's also got a link to the Google cache of the original USCCB movie review if you want to take a look.

I'm ... Speechless ...

... and we know that's pretty rare.

The Anchoress completely stunned me with this very kind post. Talk about a wonderful gift. Christmas has come early. (I'm also pretty flattered that her little brother Thom stops by ... I hear he's got high standards.)

Thank you so much, Anchoress!

(Now, if you'll excuse me I'm going to go reread that post and figure out how to live up to it!)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Let It Snow Baby, Let It Reindeer

What's a partridge?
And what's a pear tree?
I don't know so please don't ask me
But I can bet those are terrible gifts to get.
Refrain for The 12 Days of Christmas
Rose just got Reliant K's Christmas album and I have to say it is not bad, not bad at all. Of course, this is also coming from a family where Ringo Starr's Christmas album is consistently in the top 5 on the CD player at this time of year...

The Twist in This Adventure-Thriller is Catholicism

The Secret Cardinal by Tom Grace
After distributing the bread of the Eucharist, Yin offered the wine, reenacting a ritual that originated with the Passover Seder Jesus shared with his closest friends on the eve of his crucifixion. The simple act brought Yin and his congregants into communion with a billion other Roman Catholics around the world and with God.

Yin had prayed in beautiful churches, but nowhere did he feel closer to the Creator than with those clinging to their faith against immense hardship. It was in ministering to his endangered flock that Yin truly fulfilled his calling as a priest and became, in the words of Saint Francis of Assisi, a channel of Christ's peace.

"This is the blood of Christ," Yin said reverently as he offered the blood to a boy just old enough to make his first communion.

The boy bowed his head respectfully and replied, "Amen," but barely allowed the scorching liquid to touch his lips. Yin suppressed a smile.

As Yin took the glass from the boy, he heard a metallic sound, the bolts on a heavy door pulling open. It was a sound he knew well, but not from this place.

"Wake up, old man," a voice barked.

Light flooded in and the sacramental scene faded, erased from his mind's eye by the intrusion. In an instant, the clandestine mass withdrew into his precious trove of memories. ...

A thick steel door and a small air vent were the only suggestion of a world outside the cell. In a tamper-proof fixture recessed into the ceiling, a lone dim bulb provided the only illumination to reach Yin's eyes in thirty years. He had long ago lost all sense of day and night, and of the larger passages of time--temporal disorientation being but one of the techniques employed against prisoners like Yin.

"I said wake up!"
Thus we are introduced to Chinese Cardinal Yin, not known to the world as such because Pope Leo XIV has named him a cardinal in pectore (in his heart, in secret) to keep the Chinese from killing him. As it becomes evident that diplomatic measures to free Yin have permanently failed, the aging pope sends ex-Navy Seal Nolan Kilkenny to extract Cardinal Yin from China and bring him to Rome. This sets off a race against time across Asia which is set against the action in Rome where forces inside the Vatican itself are working to discover the cardinal's identity and reveal it to the Chinese.

I like this sort of thriller which tends to be straight forward between good and bad guys, full of action, and in praise of the dedicated military man's prowess. Recent books I've enjoyed of this genre include Empire by Orson Scott Card and Karl's Last Flight by Basil Sands. I hadn't come across Tom Grace's books before but this book is singularly of interest to Catholics who also enjoy the genre. Grace became aware of the struggle between the church and the Chinese government when he read a transcript of Sen. Joseph Lieberman's tribute on the death of Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei. This sparked Grace's further investigation into the situation which in turn led to this book. Not only is there the action of rescuing the Cardinal, but of a papal conclave which has a mole in its midst leaking news about Yin's escape.

Of course, I not only appreciated the adventure but the Catholic flavah' throughout. Y'all will too.