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Saintly Avengers: The Seven Champions of Christendom

31 Aug

“The Christian and the hero are inseparable.”
~ Samuel Johnson

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Of Highlander, Pig Brains, and Easter: St. Beuno of Wales

21 Apr

Remember Highlander (1986)? It’s about a race of immortals who rattle around the centuries trying to wipe each other out. “In the end,” declaims one of them (played by the immortal Sean Connery), “there can be only one.” Plus there’s this: The only way to kill one of these guys is to lop off his head. And when I say lop, I mean lop – with a three-foot broadsword that looks like it weighs more than my Camry.

It’s a fun movie – really! – but don’t take my word for it. “People hate Highlander because it’s cheesy, bombastic, and absurd,” acknowledges the micro-review on Rotten Tomatoes. “And people love it for the same reasons.” Actually, I loved it as a teen because, well, it was about a bunch of tough hombres chasing each other around the world. Forever. With Medieval swords. What’s not to love?

And now, good news! On the off chance the Highlander species of perpetual peripatetics might actually exist, there’s late word that not even decapitation need hold them back. It seems that researchers at Yale obtained a bunch of pig heads from a slaughterhouse and perfused their brains with a special hemoglobin-rich fluid. The result? Detectable brain activity, even hours after the heads had been severed from their respective bodies.

Now, true, it wasn’t the kind of activity that you’d associate with cognition or awareness, but it was still actual, measurable cellular commotion in grey matter long deemed defunct – or at least theoretically defunct. I mean, what else could it be after an extensive detachment, in both time and space, from any blood-pumping heart or other vital organs? “Assuming always that this work is replicated,” commented Hank Greely of the International Neuroethics Society, “I think it’s going to force us to think harder about how we declare somebody dead or not.”

Right – mortals and immortals alike.

Anyway, it’s funny that the pig brain story was hitting my newsfeed just as Holy Week was getting underway because Easter this year happens to coincide with saint’s day that has beheading and resuscitation overtones. Today is the feast of St. Beuno, a holy monk who is said to have evangelized much of northern Wales in the 7th century. A benefactor set Beuno up with a tract of land in Gwynedd where the saint founded a monastic community, and where he served as abbot until his death on April 21, 640. The monastery is gone now, but the chapel where he was buried remains intact.

The story goes that Beuno’s own niece, St. Winifred, was intent on a life of religion herself in imitation of her pious kinsman. Yet, the comely Winifred had attracted the attention of Prince Caradog, an ardent suitor. When she rebuffed him, the prince flew into a violent rage, cut off her head, and fled. The spot where Winifred’s head landed came alive with a gushing spring – the famed Holywell which became known for its healing properties and which acquired a reputation as the “Lourdes of Wales.”

End of story? Hardly. Like the Yale researchers, Beuno was not to be outdone by a mere beheading. When the Abbot heard of his niece’s demise, he interrupted the Mass he’d been celebrating, hurried to put Winifred back together, top to bottom, and then resumed the liturgy, offering impassioned prayers for the young woman’s healing. Sure enough, Winifred revived, “as if awakening from a deep slumber,” according to the legend, and she “rose up with no sign of the severance of the head except a thin white circle round her neck.”

Ah, a thin white circle around her neck – a scar, as it were, after a miraculous healing. Couldn’t God have accomplished that healing through Beuno’s prayers without leaving a scar? Of course, but he didn’t. No doubt, Winifred was conscious of that scar the rest of her life, and it just may have played a part in her becoming the great saint that she did – someone remembered for having “lived in almost perpetual ecstasy and to have had familiar converse with God.” Maybe every time she felt it – every time she saw it when she was gazing into the waters of Holywell – she was prompted to new heights of gratitude and surrender to the Lord.

And that’s what lends a certain verisimilitude to Winifred’s tale despite its preposterous premise, for God has a tendency to leave scars behind for our own good.

Today we’re all celebrating the Resurrection, but next Sunday, we’ll hear St. Thomas cast doubt on the Easter outrage: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

The Lord was happy to oblige: “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.’”

This Easter season, consider getting reacquainted with your own lingering scars that the Lord has seen fit to leave with you – he must’ve had a reason. And then, in the spirit of St. Winifred, perhaps use them as launching pads for ever grander gestures of fidelity and love. May every scar we retain and associate with our resurrections lead us to say with St. Thomas – through our words and our deeds – “My Lord and my God!”
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Those Empty Pews: Thoughts on Mass Attendance

14 Jan


“We always offer the same Lamb, not one today and another tomorrow, but always the same one. For this reason the sacrifice is always only one.”
~ St. John Chrysostom

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A Marxist Christmastide: Celebrating the Season with Silliness

5 Jan

Driftwood: It’s all right. That’s, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause! (A Night at the Opera [1935])

Christmas is not only a feast of children, but in some sense a feast of fools (Chesterton).

On Wednesday, the second day of the Christmas Octave, I was heading over to Kroger to pick up some groceries, and I fired up the minivan. The radio was still preset to the station that had been playing Christmas music 24/7 since Thanksgiving, and when I turned the key, guess what I heard? Bing Crosby? Vince Guaraldi Trio? Burl Ives?!

No, of course not. Christmas was over, as far as the radio station and its commercial sponsors were concerned. Back to the easy listening and soft rock – like Kool and the Gang, which is what actually started playing. “Celebrate good times,” they sang, “come on!”

It was a bit jarring – in the same way that it’s jarring when we start seeing barren fir trees abandoned at the curbside on December 26. But, you know, Kool was making a very good, seasonally appropriate point: It’s still Christmas – the Octave, the Twelve Days, even Christmastide until the Baptism of the Lord! Good times for weeks to come. Time to celebrate – come on!

However, let’s face it, that’s hard to do when the world around us – the world we inhabit most the time – has already moved on. We’ve got returns to make at the mall, new year’s resolutions to pretend we’ll keep, and tax receipts – ugh – to start organizing. Who can keep up a jolly Christmas spirit under those circumstances?

We can – I know we can! We just need a little help.

Now, it’s true, as Pope Francis points out, that true joy is more than frivolity and merrymaking. In his Christmas message to the Vatican staff, he noted that saints are “joyful people, not because they are always laughing, no, but because they are very serene inside and they know how to spread it to others.” Fair enough, but I’d still argue that conjuring up some laughter is a pretty good way to get into a joyful groove – or to keep that Christmas one going for a couple weeks more.

So, my solution? Funny movies – old funny movies. The kind that rely on corny jokes and slapstick to elicit mirth. They’re like celluloid comfort food, and they can transform even the most wintry dumps into yulish gaiety.

Frank Capra and the Thin Man corpus come to mind, but, for my money, there’s nothing like a Marx Brothers film to get the giggles going. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo (and their entourage of regulars) were masters of translating screwball vaudeville antics to the silver screen. We own the MB opera omnia on DVD, but you can find them in the public library easy enough, and probably most of them are free to watch on the internet somewhere. For the purposes of stirring up hilarity, any of them will do, but here are three that I think highlight especially Christmaslike values.

  1. A Night in Casablanca (1946): Note the year – just after the end of World War II. The Marx Brothers were the sons of Jewish immigrants, and so they were certainly attuned to Nazi atrocities and the collapse of the European order. Even so, they managed to make a comedy out of postwar Axis shenanigans, playing off the storyline (and popularity) of the earlier Bogart/Bergman classic. Groucho takes over management of a hotel that’s crawling with spies and counter-spies. Somehow, he and his looney assistants have to prevent the local Nazi fugitives from accessing a hidden cache of stolen art treasures. There’s danger and romance and risk – all elements in the Christmas story itself – not to mention a happy ending: The bad guys are vanquished, and the Brothers survive to carry on in their madcap ways.
  2. Room Service (1938): Hospitality is a major Christmas theme – something we glimpse in the innkeeper’s (perhaps grudging) provision for the Holy Family and the grand welcome they receive from the shepherds, not to mention the equally grand welcome we’re meant to give the Christ child ourselves – and it’s a theme central to this film. Groucho and company (including a youthful Lucille Ball) are struggling to find financial backing for a Broadway musical, and they’re camping out (along with the entire cast) in the White Wave Hotel. As the bills mount, the hotel’s supervising director demands that the whole gang be tossed out. The Marx Brothers manage to stay put by turning their suite into a sick room, complete with bedridden “patient,” thus hoping to play off the director’s better nature and sympathies. The ruse works, the musical finds a backer, and accounts are all squared in the end – although the hornswoggled director faints when the patient, who’d expired, shows up again in the last scene.
  3. Duck Soup (1933): Last month, I had the privilege of attending the one-day screening of Peter Jackson’s incredible World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). By weaving together restored footage and contemporary voiceovers, Jackson brought to life what actual combat was like in the trenches. As reviewer Scout Tofoya notes, the film was “not about the mindlessness of combat and murder, but of the identities lost and forged by gunfire,” although one of the veterans at the end of the film does voice his skepticism that any of it made sense or was worth it. As I watched Jackson’s masterful achievement, I couldn’t help thinking about the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, which does address the mindlessness of war, not to mention the airy detachment of those behind the lines that foment it. By poking fun at warmaking, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo indirectly make a solid case for invoking the Prince of Peace and avoiding violence as a means of problem-solving at all costs. When Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) starts singing a patriotic anthem of victory at the close, there’s an ironic satisfaction in watching the brothers pummel her with vegetables.

So, did my Christmas allusions seem a bit forced? Perhaps. The truth is that I chose to comment on those three particular films because they’re the ones my son, Nicky, and I enjoyed most recently. And I can tell you that no time was wasted in analyzing their motifs and underlying messages. We just sat there together and yukked it up – something that is surely at the heart of the Christmas event, and, by extension, of the Faith itself. “The important thing in life is…to keep alive in oneself the immortal power of astonishment and laughter,” writes Chesterton. “Religion is interested not in whether a man is happy, but whether he is still alive, whether he can still react in a normal way to new things, whether he blinks in a blinding light or laughs when he tickled.”

It’s still Christmas season, so keep watching your favorite Christmas movies. But as January slides into February and beyond, consider including a Marx Brothers classic – any of them – into your film-viewing line-up. Just for the laughs. It’s a great way to help you sustain, come what may, a jovial and joyful Christmas spirit, and celebrate good times the whole year long.
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The Gift of Listening

21 Dec

“What’s the trouble, sweetheart?”

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Compression of Character: The Two-Hour Test

2 Dec

“Two hours of life are always two hours. A great many things may turn up in even as little a while as that.”
 ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

“Did you hear that Stan Lee died?”

“Stanley who?”

I wasn’t present for that exchange, but I have it on good authority that it happened. The uninformed respondent was my wife, Nancy, who clearly isn’t tapped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe the way the rest of the country (the world?) has.

Which is why she rarely joins me and our kids in taking in the latest installments of the MCU canon at the theaters, and she’s even less inclined to sit down to watch our favorites with us at home. She can tolerate Captain America and Tom Holland’s adolescent Spider-Man, but Iron Man? X-Men? All the Avengers drama, especially at the end of “Infinity War” (2018)? Marvel just hasn’t been Nancy’s cup of tea. Her tastes run more along the Jane line – Jane Eyre, Jane Austen, you get what I mean.

Enter Ant-Man. “C’mon, honey,” I told her as we were popping the “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018) DVD into the machine, “I really think you’ll like it.” Nick and Kath, our youngest, added their voices to the chorus, and she relented.

And you know what? She kinda liked it! A couple nights later we convinced her to watch the “Ant-Man” (2015) origin story, and she liked that even more. The clumsy goofiness of Ant-Man’s Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) appealed to her, and his obvious commitment to be a good dad – despite his divorce, despite his shortcomings and failings – won her over.

Dare I say that she’s a fan now? Well, that might be a stretch, but she’s definitely come around to the MCU camp – at least the Ant-Man corner of it.

But how’d that happen? What transpired to bump Nancy over the speed bump of her comic-book misgivings to give Ant-Man a chance – especially after such a relatively diminutive (pun intended) cinematic exposure?

Chalk it up to the magic of filmmaking. In a couple hours on average, filmmakers patch together images, dialogue, and music in such a way – such an artful, subtle way (yes, even MCU filmmakers) – that audiences connect with the characters on the screen, come to care about them and their stories, and leave theaters changed by the encounter. At least that’s what’s supposed to happen. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s marvelous (pun intended again).

Nancy’s two-hour Ant-Man conversion was fresh in my consciousness when I chanced upon Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, “The Sire de Malétroit’s Door” (1877). The narrative takes place during the Hundred Years War in a town dually occupied by English and Burgundian forces. Denis de Beaulieu, a dashing and cocky young cavalier is returning home late at night and gets lost. When his movements are detected by hostile sentries, he retreats to the dark portico of an imposing mansion and draws his sword to defend his life.

As he leans back on a door to steady himself for the fight, he finds that it gives way to a pitch-black interior. Denis, grateful for this seemingly providential boon, slips inside and the door slams shut – almost as if by design.

Although safe now from his enemies without, Denis finds himself trapped within, and so he turns into the strange room and spots a sliver of light at the top of some stairs. When he reaches the light, he enters a room and comes face to face with the mansion’s owner, Alain, Sire de Malétroit. “Pray step in,” he tells Denis. “I have been expecting you all the evening.”

It quickly becomes evident, at least to Monsieur de Beaulieu (and the reader), that there’s been a mistake. The Sire had set the door-trap for an unknown suitor who’d been sending love letters to Blanche, de Malétroit’s niece and ward. De Beaulieu denies any knowledge of the affair, and he is backed up by Blanche when they finally meet. “That is not the man!” she cries out. “My uncle, that is not the man!”

The cruel, exacting de Malétroit, determined to undo the purported dishonor Blanche’s romance has brought to the family name, dismisses the couple’s entreaties and offers them a choice: Marry, on the spot, or Denis will be hanged. The distressed Blanche, of course, is horrified. It was bad enough that she was to be forced to marry a man she was in love with; now she was to be compelled to marry a stranger.

And Denis? He nobly demurs, and, while paying Blanche every courtesy and compliment, suggests an alternative avenue of resolution. “I believe there are other ways of settling such imbroglios among gentlemen,” he nobly tells the Sire. “You wear a sword, and I hear you have used it with distinction.”

Alas, the Sire had anticipated such a reaction, and he reveals to Denis that a large party of armed men are ready to impose their master’s will. Nonetheless, de Malétroit is not totally unreasonable in his demands. “As the bridegroom is to have a voice in the matter, I will give him two hours to make up for lost time before we proceed with the ceremony.”

Two hours – two measly hours to find out about another’s character and worldview, virtues and weaknesses, history and aspirations. Not only that, but to do so with an eye toward making a lifelong commitment, or forfeiting life itself. Now, I’m not about to spoil this excellent story for anybody by divulging its conclusion – although you might have some idea of where it’s headed. Regardless, if you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so – here’s a link to the text if you don’t have a copy ready at hand.

The point at issue is that two hours. Apparently, it’s enough time for filmmakers to help us get to know and like (or dislike) their characters. Is it enough time for real people to get to know each other? Put another way, if I really did only have two hours to sum up who I am, how would I do it? What would I say? Better yet, what would I do? And if I only had that much time to get to know someone else, what would I ask? What would I look for?

Take it further: What if I had even less time – say, a half hour instead of two, or maybe even just two minutes flat (like a movie trailer). The stakes are rarely so high as they were for Blanche and Denis, but aren’t most of our encounters with strangers more along such briefer lines? What impressions do I make? Do I look into people’s eyes with curiosity and compassion? Do I listen to them? Am I present to them?

That is, how do I conduct myself when I only have two minutes with another? Is the me I reveal who I want it to be?

Thomas Merton once commented that “the saint preaches sermons by the way he walks, and the way he stands and the way he sits down and the way he picks things up and holds them in his hand.” It stands to reason that sinners preach in a similar way. What kinds of sermons am I preaching in my chance encounters? I want my life to preach holiness – I want to be a saint.

“It is never too late to begin,” says de Malétroit in Stevenson’s story. He meant it as a challenge to the cornered Monsieur de Beaulieu. I’ll take it as a word of Advent hope.
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Four Agonizing Movie Scenes

26 Jul

“There’s so many good things.”
~ Peter Falk

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