“I’d rather see that anyway!”
~ Katharine (age 10)
“How high does the sycamore grow?
If you cut it down then you’ll never know.”
~ Stephen Schwartz, “Colors of the Wind”
Back before Rotten Tomatoes was a wireless ubiquity, my family depended on paperback movie guides, and our go-to was the one edited by Mick Martin and Marsha Porter. Like similar resources, Martin and Porter used an easily decipherable rating system, but since their tastes so often matched our own, they became our cinematic oracles when we made our own selections at Blockbuster or the library.
However, there’s another reason we liked their guide so much – one that has lasted into the internet age: the turkey reviews. Instead of assigning a single star (out of a possible five) to the worst of the worst, Martin and Porter substituted a tiny turkey graphic. It was easy to spot as you flipped through the pages, and the associated reviews often made for highly entertaining reading.
That was especially the case when a turkey review was brief – in fact, the shorter the better. “They don’t make them any worse than this,” reads the Martin and Porter review of The Eye of the Snake (1990), and, for The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1981), they wrote that the “only good thing about this film is the title.” Sometimes you’d luck out and come across a turkey review amounting to a single word – “Incoherent” captured up their thoughts on Streetwalkin’ (1985).
Then there’s my all-time favorite turkey, Mr. Sycamore (1975). “A mailman decides to turn into a tree,” Martin and Porter explained. “Peculiar and pointless.” So succinct and evocative, it’s all you need to know. Indeed, it almost makes you want to track down Mr. Sycamore to watch, doesn’t it?
Well, maybe not (and I never have), but it does make you wonder what the filmmakers had in mind – what were they thinking? If you look up the Tomatoes synopsis, it tells of a protagonist postman who chooses arboreal transformation over a dismal future with his domineering wife. Weird, I know, but somebody must’ve thought it was a good idea, and that somebody decided that a sycamore tree was a decent symbol for psychic withdrawal and insulation.
Biblically speaking, that filmmaking somebody couldn’t have been more wrong – that is, if St. Luke has anything to say about it.
Luke’s story of Zacchaeus made an appearance in the liturgy earlier this month, and it got me thinking about Mr. Sycamore. As you’ll recall, Zacchaeus was somewhat diminutive, and so he had to resort to humiliating measures in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus strolling through Jericho. Leaping up and down behind the crowd apparently wasn’t enough, and if he attempted to push through to the front, he probably met with elbows in the face from those who reviled his traitorous tax-collecting occupation.
Nevertheless, Zacchaeus refused to give up, and he scaled a nearby sycamore tree in the nick of time. His eyes and the Savior’s met, and an extraordinary encounter ensued. “Zacchaeus, come down quickly,” Jesus insisted, “for today I must stay at your house.” Joy and conversion followed, and the tax collector’s life was changed forever. “Today salvation has come to this house,” the Lord declared. What’s more, as if to rebuke the crowd who “grumbled” at his choice of pals, Jesus explained that “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
So, why a sycamore? Was Luke making a symbolic point? Not necessarily. It’s likely one of those lovely details in the Gospels that indicate that a recorded event was an actual occurrence – not just a figurative fiction or a clever analogy invented by the evangelist. That is, it wasn’t just “a tree” that the tax collector climbed, but a specific tree – a particular sycamore in fact, or rather a “sycamore fig” to distinguish it from the non-fruit bearing tree that our postman friend probably turned into. Not surprisingly, the actual tree of Zacchaeus became famous, and there’s an old sycamore in Jericho that locals associate with the Gospel story.
All that falls under what the Catechism calls the literal sense of Scripture, but we’re further invited to consider the story’s spiritual sense. “Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs” (CCC 117).
In this regard, I’ve always appreciated the Ignatian approach to Biblical meditation (especially the Gospels) in which we put ourselves into the scene we’re reading about – and not just the character we might naturally gravitate to, but perhaps all of them in turn. In the case of Luke’s narrative, it’s desirable to take up the mantle of Zacchaeus, to picture ourselves surrendering to Christ and radically reforming our lives, but we should also consider ourselves in the guise of the rabble, who block the publican’s line of sight and who dis Jesus when he elects to dine with the despised.
Then there’s that sycamore, almost a character unto itself. I picture it in the backdrop of the narrative, off to the side and part of the scenery – nothing special, just another tree. Up in front, the incarnate deity is passing by, and everyone’s attention is riveted on him. Meanwhile, stage left, there’s the little tax collector, jumping for the tree’s lower branches, and then ascending high above the mob. Far from being a metaphorical hideout as in Mr. Sycamore, the tree of Zacchaeus was a launch pad, lifting the outcast to new heights of levity and love.
That tree is us, I think – it’s the Church – and the sycamore’s humble part in the Zacchaeus story parallels the hidden role we often play in helping others to see Jesus. We’re always on stage when people know we’re Catholic, even when we’re not consciously being “religious.” Since our relationship with Jesus has ups and downs like any relationship, folks may not always see Christ clearly in our behaviors and speech – but that’s OK. We needn’t be spiritual superstars all the time to witness to the Lord. Sometimes (often?) the very human ordinariness and frailty of our faith life is just enough for others to clamber up for a vision of God.
Which brings me to one final sycamore reference – in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1936 stage play You Can’t Take It With You. Our kids’ high school put it on in October, and seeing it reminded me of how much I love Frank Capra’s ebullient film version (which garnered five stars from Martin and Porter). It’s a delightful comedy featuring the oddball Vanderhof/Sycamore family and a reassuring portrayal of how grace can operate in even the most turbulent, goofy circumstances.
There’s nothing chichi about the Sycamore household (like the tree they’re named for), and they’ve got internal troubles galore. Nonetheless, they’re a beacon in their community, a ladder of optimistic vision. Theirs is a domestic church that spills over with joie de vivre, and their example of mutual love and loyalty are a healing balm for those around them. It’s as if the Sycamore’s shortcomings are themselves transformed into a source of hope – a persistent hope, as reflected in the concluding dinner prayer uttered by Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore):
Well, sir, here we are again. We’ve had quite a time of it lately, but it seems that the worst of it is over. Course, the fireworks all blew up, but we can’t very well blame that on you. Anyway, everything’s turned out fine, as it usually does…. We’ve all got our health; as far as anything else is concerned, we still leave that up to you. Thank you.
Deference. Trust. Gratitude. Peace. These must be among the lofty “ways” and “paths” Isaiah was talking about in yesterday’s Advent kickoff reading (albeit the prophet admittedly draws on a geological image rather than a tree):
The mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills…. Many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain…that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.”
As we begin walking the Advent path of discovery, let’s remember that we ourselves are the Lord’s house – that we are that mountain raised above the hills, regardless of our inadequacies. Like Grandpa Vanderhof, we needn’t worry, for it’s the Lord who does the establishing and saving. All we need to do is make way for those who’ll scramble over us for a better view.
Next year, perhaps, God willing, we will again go to jail.
~ Dorothy Day
Oleksa Zarytsky, a Greek-Catholic priest, died in a Kazakhstan prison 53 years ago today. It was his second go-around behind bars on account of his dogged faith, and he’d already survived years of forced labor at the hands of the Bolsheviks. Still, the human body can only take so much, even when it’s a saint’s body, and Zarytsky succumbed to the beatings and mistreatment, earning a martyr’s crown on this day in 1963.
I was doing a bit of research on Fr. Oleksa, beatified by John Paul II in 2001, and I printed out some materials I found online. When I went to retrieve them from the shared printer at work, a colleague met me in the hall and handed them over. “I figured these were yours,” she said (I’m the token Catholic at our evangelical college), “and I hope you don’t mind my reading them. What an edifying story – he kept witnessing to the Gospel even at the risk of being returned to prison.”
The hallway was lined with students studying for their A&P lab, and you could tell they were listening in. I thanked my friend for delivering the documents, agreed with her assessment of Zarytsky’s story, and, mindful of the undergraduates listening in, I added, “Going to jail is certainly a mark of distinction for Christians.”
A different colleague, listening from his office, hastily added a qualifier (perhaps for the students): “If it’s for the right reasons!” – and who can argue with that? Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that Christianity and imprisonment have a long and noble shared history. Religious liberty is rightly on our radar these days, both here at home and abroad, but there’s little question that Christians belong in jail.
At the very least, we belong there as visitors – it’s one of the corporal Works of Mercy that Jesus himself enumerated in Matthew 25 – although we seem to belong there as occupants as well. Just this past Thursday, for example, we heard St. Paul in the first reading ask the Ephesians for their prayers, that he’d continue “to make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel for which I am an ambassador in chains….” Those chains weren’t a metaphor, and the New Testament attests to Paul’s repeated imprisonments for refusing to compromise on the Gospel, not to mention the persecution of all Christians in those earliest years of The Way.
It’s a historical reality that was brought home for me when I had a chance to visit Rome long ago with my parents and sister. They were primarily interested in ancient Rome, but happily they were willing to indulge my penchant for the more Catholic side of the Eternal City.
Occasionally, our interests overlapped – as when we toured the Colosseum, so closely identified with Roman persecutions of the early church. Another site of mutual interest, and a highlight of the entire trip for all of us, was the little out-of-the-way 5th-century basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli. In English, that’s “St. Peter in Chains,” but my mother preferred the fluidity of the Italian and she delighted in affecting an accent when enunciating it. I can still hear her voice – San Pietro in Vincoli – and see her satisfied grin as the words tumbled from her tongue.
Our family visit to San Pietro occurred long before the advent of GPS and cell phones, so it took us a while to wind our way through the back streets of the Esquiline and track it down. When we finally did so, we were hot and tired, and it was a relief to enter the dark, cool church. Fodor’s immediately directed us to Michelangelo’s Moses off to the right. The imposing sculpture, intended for a Vatican monument in honor of Pope Julius II, was waylaid at San Pietro’s for a variety of reasons, and now it’s a permanent fixture there.
However, it wasn’t Moses that captured our attention when we visited, but rather the chains. According to tradition, the Basilica’s high altar houses the fetters that held bound the Apostle Peter when he was arrested in Jerusalem – the very chains that “fell off his hands” when an angel appeared to effect his release (Acts 12.7). After receiving them as a gift, Pope Leo the Great sought to compare the Jerusalem relics to a second set of chains associated with St. Peter’s Mamertine confinement in Rome. When the Pontiff brought the separate shackles together, they miraculously fused, almost as if to ratify their historicity.
Regardless of their provenance, those chains in the impressive glass-encased reliquary at San Pietro make very concrete the biblical tales of saints being locked up for their faith and for spreading his Good News of salvation in Christ. For my mom, a devout evangelical, seeing those actual restrains was a confirming touchstone of belief – a Roman apostolic equivalent to visiting the Holy Land and walking where Jesus walked.
Of course, that kind of radical Christian witness didn’t cease with the apostolic age, which brings us back to Fr. Zarytsky, a very modern example of absolute abandonment to the Lord. Born in 1912, Oleksa had his sights set on becoming a priest from a very young age, and the triumph of Stalinist atheism in his native Ukraine didn’t dissuade him. He attended seminary in Lviv, received ordination in 1936, and set about his priestly duties with relish – catechizing, baptizing, hearing confessions, and, above all, celebrating Mass and giving the people their Eucharistic savior. Not surprisingly, the Communists caught up with him in time, and he was deported to a Kazakhstan labor camp in 1948.
After his release in 1957, Fr. Oleksa rebuffed Soviet pressure to denounce the Pope and he redoubled his priestly efforts on behalf of the land’s beleaguered Catholic minority. Eventually he was appointed Apostolic Administrator of Kazakhstan and Siberia, and he became known as “The Tramp of God” on account of his tireless travels to bring the Gospel and the sacraments to his vast pastoral territory.
Arrested again in 1961, Zarytsky was returned to the prison where he’d meet his demise two years later. But even in jail, this dedicated priest would not abandon his apostolate. Aside from the comfort he brought to his fellow prisoners, he kept up a lively correspondence with those on the outside. “Who has God in his soul has it all,” Zarytsky wrote his brother by way of explanation. “This is my ray of light, the highest thought of my life.”
So that’s all inspiring, I know, but how relevant is it to those of us who’ll probably never face incarceration? Plenty, and it makes me think of my mother again. Confinement can take many forms, and, in her case, it was a physical confinement – a debilitating neurological illness that ultimately took her life. Even so, she bravely faced each day and sought to glorify her savior despite her significant limitations and ill health. She desperately prayed for healing, and she was honest with God about her anger when it wasn’t forthcoming, but she also never let up praying for her family, for her friends and acquaintances, and for the church at large – particularly for those Christians facing persecution in the far-flung corners of the world.
Hence the full meaning of St. Paul’s reference to his ambassadorship in chains: That, regardless of circumstances, regardless of whatever might hamper our human mobility or psychological freedom or even physical existence, we can nonetheless be conduits of grace and envoys of Christ wherever we find ourselves. “Have no anxiety about anything,” wrote the imprisoned St. Paul, “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Fr. Zayrtsky could only concur. “Every day and every hour we have to offer everything to the suffering Jesus who carried his cross on Calvary to show us how to come to eternal life,” he advised from inside the labor camp. “Pray a lot. Prayer is our greatest strength.”
No manner of chain can keep us from that.
A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.