Tag Archives: Robert De Niro

Of Memory, Metanoia, and Manslaughter

15 Oct

Oh, of thine only worthy blood
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drown in it my sins’ black memory.
~
John Donne

An essay by historian Andrew Bacevich scrolled up in my Facebook feed, and I saw that it had been posted by my friend Shawn Storer of Catholic Peace Fellowship. That was enough to make it a must-read sooner rather than later, so I opened it up.

It was entitled “Autopilot Wars,” and it was Bacevich’s take on our nation’s numb embrace of perpetual armed conflict as a norm. “Like traffic jams or robocalls, war has fallen into the category of things that Americans may not welcome, but have learned to live with,” Bacevich writes. “In twenty-first-century America, war is not that big a deal.”

It was a depressing read, yet hardly a surprising one, for our country long ago inured itself to killing as a way of solving problems. A people who’ve come to tolerate abortion through all nine months of pregnancy is a people primed to mow down entire populations without a second thought. Death has become a way of life, and, in the name of patriotism, we don’t even question the motives or objectives. Heck, we can’t even keep count of how many wars we’re in, let alone why we’re in them.

Bacevich’s article was rattling in mind as I drove to morning Mass. NPR buzzed in the background – it was the TED Radio Hour. I could hear a researcher murmuring about manipulating the memories of lab rats.

I turned up the volume.

The researcher’s name was Steve Ramirez, a professor of neuroscience at Boston University. He and his colleagues developed a technique they call optogenetics that allows them to turn memories on and off by aiming lasers at particular regions of rodent brains. The effects are temporary, but Ramirez indicated that he anticipated further research that will lead to more enduring effects.

It creeped me out. I’d just recently seen the new Blade Runner 2049 which prominently features memory manipulation in cyborg replicants, and here was an actual process for doing the same thing in miniature mammals. However, my creepy feelings turned into alarm when Ramirez and his interviewer, Guy Raz, discussed possible future applications of optogenetics – like altering the memories of those suffering from PTSD; to erase, in effect, the crippling memories of the battlefield. Despite the possibility that such memory manipulation might be abused, Ramirez indicated that the potential for good is much too great to avoid continued research in this area.

I found myself yelling back at the radio, “No! No! Don’t do it! Can’t you see?” Consider what the Pentagon would do such memory altering therapies. We already train our soldiers to suppress their innate resistance to exterminating human life, and we push them forward to the front lines to wipe out as many enemy lives as possible. Then, when they come back to us physically wounded, we patch them up and send them forward to kill some more. Is it really all that hard to imagine that the military would draw on optogenetics to do the same with the psychologically wounded? To take, that is, those suffering from PTSD and re-program their memories to enable them to return to the front?

Even if that appalling development could be avoided – and that’s a huge “if” – the underlying premise of Ramirez’s suggestion is itself flawed. The problem with PTSD isn’t the crippling memories. The problem is what caused the memories in the first place: the dehumanizing horror of war. Isn’t there good reason to remember that horror, painful as it is? It seems to me that such remembering could help undo what Bacevich details as our “collective indifference” to war as part of modernity’s landscape.

Ramirez and Raz were concluding their radio conversation as I arrived at church. I shut off the car, went inside, and settled in for the liturgy. Entrance antiphon, sign of the cross, greeting, and then this:  “My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins” – and that’s when it hit me. Memory of agonizing reality is central to our faith and essential for real conversion – metanoia in the Greek of the New Testament.

In fact, we use a different Greek word that translates as “memory” (anamnesis) to describe how it is that Christ’s singular sacrifice on the Cross is made present for us at Mass. The Reformers of the past and our Fundamentalist detractors in the present accuse us of re-crucifying Jesus in the course of our “false” worship. Yet the Mass is not a repetition, but rather a re-presentation – a liturgical and sacramental remembering that connects what Christ suffered on Calvary with our recollected transgressions here and now.

I think of that scene in The Mission (1986) when Robert De Niro’s character, Rodrigo Mendoza, a former slave trader and mercenary, is lugging the tools of his inhuman trade up a muddy jungle slope. He repeatedly slips and falls until one of his Jesuit companions cuts the burden free. Mendoza subsequent silent descent back down the hill, his angry reattachment of the bundle to his back, and then his slow ascent back up the hill again is a powerful image of real repentance. Rather than forgetting the past – cutting it away and rolling it out of sight – authentic conversion requires remembering. It requires revisiting our painful histories and our damnable decisions. Mendoza was a murderer, and his redemption requires that he thoroughly avow his murderous past before he can experience the grace of forgiveness.

Our faith is dependent on remembering violence, for all sin is violence – a violent battering if not rending of our relationship with God. Similarly, our entire civilization also depends on such remembering, and the tragedy of our times is that we’re already re-programming our memories to avoid unspeakable realities, even without optogenetics. “Responding to the demands of the Information Age is not, it turns out, conducive to deep reflection,” Bacevich notes with reference to our war-making amnesia. “Our attention span shrinks and with our time horizon.”

This is the point that Nicholas Carr made in his recent WSJ essay on our contemporary smartphone dependencies. “Now that our phones have made it so easy to gather information online, our brains are likely offloading even more of the work of remembering to technology,” he wrote. “No matter how much information swirls around us, the less well-stocked our memory, the less we have to think with.” No wonder we don’t care about how many wars we’re in – or how many babies are being slaughtered in our abortuaries.

Granted, remembering more means suffering more, which is a tall order for a world bent on avoiding suffering – at least for ourselves. Remember more anyway, and then choose to suffer alongside those whose memories of killing cause them the deepest kind of distress – coming alongside them figuratively and prayerfully, at the very least, but in reality as well if given the opportunity. Such compassionate companionship might embolden them to speak out on behalf of peacemaking and nonviolent solutions to our problems. We’ll be wise to listen to what they have to say – and commit it to memory.
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Required Reading

17 Jul

bible

They may have only those books
which are necessary for their religious exercises.
~ The Rule of St. Francis (1221)

I’m just beginning the earliest stages of formation in the Secular Franciscan Order (OFS), and I had an orientation meeting with Sr. Agnes Marie recently. She walked me and Ray, a fellow newbie, through the process – the different stages of formation, from Inquiry to Candidacy to Profession – and gave us some books. A pile of books, really: A formation manual, a volume of prayers and rituals, and a book entitled, To Live as Francis Lived: A Guide for Secular Franciscans. I’d also dusted off my old Breviary and brought it along – the OFS community prays the Divine Office together when they meet – and had tracked down my copy of the Franciscan Omnibus of Sources as well.

A whole shelf-full of tomes – to follow the poor man of Assisi? Don’t get me wrong: As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as too many books – which you’d see right away if you visited our home. Still, it seemed ironic that I’d so much stuff would be required to walk in the way of one who required so little.

It reminds me of a scene in The Mission (1986) – do you know that film? Directed by Roland Joffé, it’s a moving tale of courage and conversion that takes place in the jungles of 18th-century Paraguay. There, the Jesuits have established elaborate mission centers (“Reductions”) where the indigenous Guaraní have the opportunity to learn about Christ and become acclimated to European cultural ways.

To our modern ears, that sounds uncomfortably like Western paternalism and imperial conquest, but there’s more to the story – and it’s based on historical events. The real Jesuit Reductions were certainly oriented to evangelization, but they were also a hedge against oppression. At the time, there was no consensus in Europe regarding slavery, and that extended to the colonies. Thus, the Guaraní and other tribal groups were at risk of enslavement depending on where they dwelled: The Portuguese permitted the practice in their territories, but it was forbidden in Spanish colonies – which is where the Jesuits located their Reductions.

At one point, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), a reformed mercenary and slave trader, seeks reconciliation with the Guaraní he’d been persecuting as well as with God. After a profound redemption, Mendoza asks Fr. Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) how he can demonstrate his gratitude. Mind you, Fr. Gabriel is a Jesuit priest, someone well familiar with libraries and intense study, so you’d expect at least a couple books in response – maybe a treatise on forgiveness and then a copy of The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius.

But, no. The Jesuit pushes a small Bible across the table to Mendoza, and says, “Read this.” As the scene progresses, you hear a voiceover of De Niro reading St. Paul’s “Love” passage in I Corinthians 13 (from a modified King James Version):

Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.

São_Miguel_das_Missões_(Brazil)At the same time, on the screen, De Niro’s character interacts with the Guaraní – conversing with them, laughing and smiling with them. It’s stirring depiction of redemptive love in action.

There’s lots more to be said about this film (by all means, see it if you haven’t!), but the message of this particular scene is clear: The essence of the Faith is found in Sacred Scripture – it’s the one indispensable book. “Ignorance of the Scriptures,” wrote St. Jerome, “is ignorance of Christ” (DV #25), and there’s no doubt that St. Francis would’ve concurred – his own revolutionary conversion was precipitated by hearing the Gospel proclaimed to him afresh.

What’s true for Francis is true for his followers. In a 1956 address, Pope Pius XII called the Secular Franciscans a “school of Christian perfection,” which makes so much sense. We want to become saints ourselves, and the Secular Franciscan Order is like an ongoing seminar in which we study and imitate the way of sanctification that Francis himself followed. And, like any school, this one has required reading – actually, a single text. Here’s how the authors of To Live as Francis Lived put it:

The textbook of that school is the Gospel, the inspired faith-vision written down by the Church in the New Testament. This is primary. Any additions such as the Rule and Constitution are merely attempts to make some practical suggestions about carrying out the gospel in the circumstances of the twenty-first century.

There’s a stark parallel to this in The Imitation of Christ with regards to those who prefer pilgrimages to prayer. Thomas à Kempis editorializes that those who constantly flit around shrines and holy places might be missing out on what will truly benefit their souls:

Often in looking at those memorials men are moved by curiosity and novelty, and very little fruit of amendment is borne away, especially when there is so much careless trifling and so little true contrition. But here in the Sacrament of the Altar, Thou art present altogether, My God, the Man Christ Jesus; where also abundant fruit of eternal life is given to every one soever that receiveth Thee worthily and devoutly.

Why exhaust ourselves making pilgrimages if we’re not already attending to the Real Presence awaiting us in the churches right where we live? Similarly, there’s no point in reading erudite studies on Christology and thick books of theological reflection if we’re not first putting in our time with meeting Him in the written Word itself.

There’s no question that Sr. Agnes knows this – and lives it! Giving us baby Franciscans a pile of books wasn’t meant to frame the formation process as a course of study – by no means! The history and theology, bylaws and ceremony are important, but only supplemental. What is truly needful is an openness to the Holy Spirit and an eagerness for Christ – whom we encounter in Word and Sacrament. St. Francis himself pointed the way, and that Way is laid out for us in Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels. They’re our essential reference, and they’re entitled to a reserved spot on the top of our “to-read” stacks.
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