Thursday, April 9, 2015

Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC: The Divine Mercy Devotion

Here is a brief explanation of the Divine Mercy devotion, and the feast that we celebrate this coming Sunday. Mercy Sunday is a rather recent observance, established by St. Pope John Paul II in 2000 (though Fr. Michael would point out that the connection between the Easter Octave day and the theme of Christ's mercy goes back centuries). I have found that many people are deeply in love with this devotion, but the clergy can be a bit suspicious. I have to admit I was one of them, but the more I've come to understand it the more I see this is a valuable spiritual weapon the Lord has given us. So I encourage everyone out there to taker advantage of the many graces Our Lord wants to give us through this powerful devotion.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A.D.: The Bible Continues // Mini-Review

I did catch the first installment of the new Roma Downey-Mark Burnett produced Biblical TV production, A.D.: The Bible Continues. The massive success of 2013's The Bible (broadcast in the U.S. on The History Channel) and last year's Son of God, the theatrical release culled from the original miniseries, has won the wife and husband production team a slot on NBC. I want to watch a few weeks more before giving a full blown analysts, but my first impressions are positive, with some of the same apprehensions I had with the original production.

On the positive side, the production values are better than we saw with The Bible (obviously high ratings and solid box office breeds bigger subsequent budgets). While still not up to feature film standards, they do try to tell the story artfully. The story itself is told in a straight forward, un-ironic way: while characters may express doubts, the presentation itself accepts that Jesus is who he says he is. While the Jewish authorities are clearly on the wrong side of history, they are not completely villainized. They are presented as men walking a tight rope between being true to their faith and avoiding giving the Roman occupiers an excuse to crack down. In other words they are treated like human beings and not mustache twirling criminals.

On the negative side the first episode (of 12) drops us right into the middle of Good Friday without any real context of how we got there. The producers' goal is to make a series in the style of Game of Thrones, that will draw a broad audience, including the un-evangelized, and continue with 12 new episodes a year for seasons to come. I certainly hope they get their wish, but I'm afraid that the viewer really does need to have some knowledge of the Biblical sources to really understand what's going on. As Christians we sometimes take for granted that people are familiar with Jesus' story and why he died on the cross. But the truth is that people who grew up in other religious traditions or, as is increasingly the case, no faith tradition at all, will probably be left scratching their head a bit.

I'll be back in a few weeks with some more, again, I want to see more. Episode 1 leaves us with an empty tomb cliff hanger, I'm guessing designed to draw back people who may not know how things go from here. Again, I think their aim is true, but only a few more weeks of tracking the ratings (which by all accounts were solid for Sunday's premiere), to see if they hit the target.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Mad Men Season 7.2: Could it be a Sign?

Don Draper standing in the shadow of love lost, and the life not lived

The second installment of Mad Men's farewell season has begun, leaving the exact time and date of our reentry a bit vague. I originally assumed we were still in the summer of 1969, but a presidential speech playing in the background indicates we've moved ahead to the spring of '70.  Other tip offs that time has elapsed are some misadvised mustaches, longer sideburns and slightly wilder hair for the men. Otherwise things have flowed logically from last years midseason finale. SC&P has been acquired by McCann, and both Pete and Ted are back from California. While on the surface the larger parent company seems to be letting their new acquisition alone as promised, the corporate overlords manage to settle some old scores, as we shall see. Don, on his way to divorce number 2, is back to his old womanizing ways. At the same time he tells stories of his youth growing up poor in a bordello with panache and a sense of comic nostalgia that belies his obsessive secretiveness from years past. Yes, Don seems, if not reborn, reinvigorated and comfortable in his own skin now that he's fully back after his half a year exile from the company.

But, as you might guess, all is not well bellow the surface. After Don has a dream about an old flame from Season 1, Rachel Katz, nee Menken, he decides to reach out to her to help solve a problem with a client, only to find out that she died suddenly the week before. She had been on his mind even before this, as evidenced by his previous fascination with a vaguely similar looking brunet waitress at a greasy spoon.

At the same time Ken Cosgrove is forced out of the company by an executive at McCann as payback for past slights, both professional and personal. Only the night before his wife tried to talk him into quitting to pursue the writing career he's always wanted. Her father is retiring from his job at Dow, and she feels that Ken shouldn't wait so long to leave a job he hates to go after the life he really wants. When he speaks to Don after the sacking, he tells him that he's not really mad or distressed, but sees the confluence of his father-in-law's retirement, his wife's advise and being fired, all within 24 hours, as a sign that he needs to go out and live the life not lived.

Don begins to see his looking for Rachel in a random waitress' eyes, his dream about her and her untimely death as a sign as well. There is no doubt that he has often thought of her over the years. A few season's back they ran into each other in a restaurant, and the brief scene effectively conveyed the messages that she had found a personal happiness that was still eluding him, and that she was the one he could have found his own happiness with. He goes to her apartment where her family and friends are sitting shiva to pay his respects. But her sister, who knows of their romantic past, is suspicious as to Don's motives. When Don tells her that he just wanted to know what was going on in her life, she tells him that her dead sister "lived the life she wanted to live."

Don is left on the outside looking in as he stands alone in the vestibule as the traditional prayers of mourning begin to be chanted in Hebrew. He isn't allowed to actively participate in the mourning rituals because he's not Jewish. But there is a sense that he's separated from Rachel by more than religion, or even death. She rejected Don's cynical world view and followed a more traditional path of marriage and family, while still being active in the running of the family department store. She knew what she wanted and who she was, staying true to that until the end.  Don mourns the passing of possibly the one woman in the show's 10 year story line he actually loved, as well wondering if his hopes of true happiness died with her.

The implication is clear that for all the new found peace he's found with his past, as well has his professional resurgence, Don is still not living the life he wants. And he's not the only one. In spite of the financial windfall she got from the McCann buyout, as well as her increased responsibilities at the firm, Joan still can't get any respect. Peggy also seems comfortable at the office, but there is an aching for someone to share her life with. When love seems to fall into her lap, she's apprehensive. As she tells her prospective beau who playfully calls her old fashioned for not wanting to give in on the first date, she's tried "new fashioned" and didn't necessarily find it better.  Life couldn't be better for our anti-heroes, but there is still this lingering feeling that there is something more out there.

The episode is bookended by Miss Peggy Lee singing Is That All There Is, her 1969 hit that's style nonetheless hearkens back to the show's early 1960's origin. And while some might call the song selection a bit on the nose, it's relative obscurity coupled with Lee's knowing, world weary delivery makes it inspired. We are coming to the end of an era, as AMC's painfully on the nose promotional campaign reminds us, and everyone still seems to be taking one step forward and two steps back on the road to happiness. While the signs are not clear yet, I don't think we're looking at a total Don Draper crash and burn, but he still seems a long way from finding the peace he's been looking for.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Holy Week 2015: Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion

Prior to the liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Council Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday were two separate observances. Passion Sunday kicked off a two week period leading up to Easter known as Passiontide; a sort of season within the season of Lent that focused more specifically on the events leading up to Jesus' death. The two respective observances have now been combined into our present day Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion that begins Holy Week. Though the concept of a distinctive quasi liturgical time embedded into Lent was eliminated, shadows of the past still remain. Starting last Sunday the priest is to use the First Preface of the Lord's Passion at Mass, and the Gospel readings reflect heighten tensions, zeroing in on the controversies and plots leading to Jesus' eventual arrest and execution. Previously we've been preoccupied more with the general need to do penance and acts of charity, as well as hearing about the signs Jesus performed that show him to be the Messiah, and the inability or unwillingness of the people of his time to recognize them as such.

Today we have this double observance of Jesus' triumphal entrance into Jerusalem and his ignominious death five days later. And what a juxtaposition this is. One moment shows Jesus at the pinnacle of his popularity; a conquering hero of sorts, who many are ready to declare king. The next we hear the story of his betrayal by Judas, abandonment by the rest of the 12, including Peter, and his tortuous death. It is this week when we remember Jesus' suffering and death that makes Christianity so unique, as far as I can tell. The idea that God become man and suffered and died is a stumbling block for many, both deists and atheists alike. And often times Christians themselves seem to want to distance themselves from the cross and it's deeper meaning for us. But it is in the cross that we glory, it is in the cross that we have our true victory.

A reason that the High Priest rips his garments when Jesus declares that he is not only the Messiah, but the Son of God, is because he knew what that meant. For the Jews the great profession of faith is that God is One. His is higher than the heavens and deeper than the seas. He is the perfection of being that can not be encapsulated or comprehended. And so he is. But in Jesus we have God humbling himself, taking the form of a slave, as St. Paul puts it. We would say that in Jesus the unity of God is not disrupted, but the great trinitarian mystery revealed.

Along with the notion that God is indeed higher than the mountains and deeper than the oceans; unfathomable in the riches of his simplicity of being, is that God walked our streets. He suffered our temptations. He experienced rejection and misunderstanding. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth he was the victim of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. He ended his earthly life nailed to a cross naked, bleeding and abandoned: a stumbling block for both atheists and theists of various stripes alike. But for those who believe the cross is the true tree of life.

But for us who believe it's also a reminder that God isn't far away. He is beyond our comprehension but our sufferings and difficulties are not beyond his. We can never say that God doesn't understand us. Not that he needed to be incarnate to understand us and our lives. In a way I think he did it for us, so we wouldn't have that excuse for doubting. I think it's why we have the sacraments. God could forgive us by our asking for it in our hearts, but maybe we would have doubts about his mercy. But when the priest says, "I absolve you of your sins," we have no need to doubt; his forgiveness is made concrete for us. He told us he would be with us until the end of time, and maybe we would believe that. But when we walk into a church and see the red lamp by the tabernacle, or the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance on the altar, or receive the Eucharist at Mass we know he is truly with us, waking with us, one with us.

As we walk with the Lord this week, remembering his passion, death and Resurrection, may we never forget that he is with us in our everyday passions leading us to the glory of his Risen life.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Stuck on a False Narrative

As you may of noticed, I haven't exactly been hitting the keys over the last couple of months. But I'm back, and have a few thoughts on 50 Shades of Grey and why faith doesn't seem to matter to so many people.

50 Shades of What Ever 

Unless you've been under a rock of late, you know that the film adaptation of the best selling book 50 Shades of Grey was released in theaters this past Friday. In the week or so leading up to the movie's release I saw posts galore on Facebook from (mainly) women of faith decrying the film for exploiting and degrading women. Some of these posts were people writing in their own words the feelings of disgust they felt at the movie and the books, others were links to Catholic or Evangelical sites covering the story and expressing their outrage at the film in logical, orderly prose.

It reminded me somewhat of what happened when The Da Vinci Code came out a decade ago. In that case a sort of cottage industry grew up of authors writing books and putting together videos exposing the historical and theological errors of the Dan Brown pot boiler. The phenomenon came and went, and I'm not sure people were swayed one way or the other by the catholic response. Those who were inclined to believe the narrative of a purely human Jesus who secretly married and had children and a corrupt Church covering up the truth proposed by the movie were not going to be moved by the arguments made by believers, and those who know the truth weren't going to go see the movie to begin with. As for the great middle who went to see the movie as pure entertainment, not knowing or caring about the controversy, they very well may have been swayed to believe the narrative presented by the film. But not because we didn't make good enough arguments or present history accurately enough, rather because we didn't come back with a competing, and just as compelling narrative.

Fr. Barron, in a video on C.S. Lewis, points out that Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien set about to use their fantasies to present a competing narrative to the prevalent secular materialist mind set that had already taken hold in the mid twentieth century. While both men may not have used that language, they understood the power of myth to shape minds and world views. In recasting the story of creation, fall and redemption in the form of an adventure story they were attempting to "evangelize the imagination," to use Fr. Barron's words. The problem today is that we lack this creative imagination. We have ceded the arts to the postmoderns, relying strictly on dry argumentation to get our point across.

The answer is not to give up on scholarship and traditional apologetics, but to use those tools while reclaiming our seat at the creative table as well. There are traditional Christians trying to make movies and write literature, but they range from noble failures to out and out artistic train wrecks. Films like 2006's Bella and (to a lesser extent) Gimme Shelter from two years ago give me hope, but we have a long way to go. What separates those two movies for me is that, while both were made from a faith based perspective, neither took for granted that the viewer was a believer. Both had pro-life themes, but didn't villainize the other side. Both tried to change the narrative while acknowledging that theirs was not the dominant one. Too many faith based films take the truth of their position and the sympathy of the audience for granted. What this leads to is a sort of cinematic echo chamber where we end up talking to ourselves rather than cinema being an avenue to engage the culture and effectively challenge the prevailing narrative. Until we do that we should expect more Da Vinci Codes and 50 Shades coming at us unabated.

The Grand Narrative Scapegoat: Humanae Vitae

One of the great cultural narratives that shades how many Catholics view the world is that the great exodus out of the Church began with Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the traditional Christian teaching on artificial contraception. The narrative goes that Catholics left the Church over this issue, and those that remain simply ignore the restriction on contraceptives. Unless we become more "realistic" about this and other sexual matters, like homosexuality, we will continue to see parishes empty out, or so the narrative goes. The narrative is not completely wrong (I've met people who say they stopped practicing their faith over the teaching on contraceptives, and I know gays who struggle with the issue of faith and sexuality). This narrative though is incomplete, and a tad outdated.

Here's the problem: there is evidence that the exodus from organized religion in the United States, among both Catholics and Protestants, started as early as 1965. Contraception is one issue that drove people away, but other issues were and still are facing the Church as well. We are struggling now with the issue divorced and remarried Catholics and how they are to be cared for, as if this is a new issue effecting Sunday attendance at Mass. But, while the divorce rate exploded after 1970, statistics show a steady increase in the divorce rate through the 1950's and 60's before taking off in the 70's.  It's easy to say that the drop off in Mass participation is a result of the Church's "intransigents" on these and other issues of sexual morality. But how do we explain that from roughly 1975 on the percentage of the U.S. population identifying themselves as Main Line Protestants dramatically fell off the table. Our separated brothers and sisters long ago liberalized their teachings on human sexuality (the Church of England modified their teaching on contraception in the early 1930's, and today only 36% of British men in a recent survey identify themselves as Christians). Many ecclesial communities have also adopted women clergy, and in some cases have accepted openly homosexual prelates into their ranks. Yet none of these innovations, some of which have been called for by progressive Catholics for decades, has done anything to stem the tide out of their pews. Why is it that we think following such policies will work for us when they haven't worked for others?

In insisting on this widely accepted narrative we've missed the forest for the trees. The changing mores on human sexuality reflects a deeper philosophical change in the culture. Accepting Christ means saying no to something else. It's Jesus who puts the conditions on us, not the other way around. He told the rich young man to give up his riches, but the man couldn't do it, going away sad. But we can take out "riches" and plug in any number of material things or willful desires: it could be that beach house we have or always wanted, it could be a relationship with a person we genuinely love, it could be freedom of movement or it could be the choice of career. It could mean sacrificing sexual activity. The injunction to pick up the cross and carry it everyday will always be at the heart of the Gospel message, and that is the stumbling block, not divorce, contraception or acceptance of gay relationships as normative. Those are symptoms of a larger problem.

We live in an intellectually fractured age. We live a strange mix of a sort of functional libertarianism that still wants big government when it wants it, but otherwise individuals want to be left alone. We care passionately about the rights of sexual minorities and animals, but care little for the poor and marginalized. We reject organized religion but are seeking some spiritual connection by way of yoga, eastern mysticism, self help gurus and, increasingly, the occult. Most believe in some sort of afterlife, but don't see the importance of funeral rites or prayers for the dead. How we celebrate funerals, apart from the formal prayers and liturgical gestures, no longer reflects a hope in the life to come, but is strictly a remembrance of what has ended. I'd say we've become like the ancient Egyptians, who buried loved ones with coins and food for the journey over the river of the dead, but this practice at least looked forward to a life to come. In our case I've seen bottles of scotch, cartons of cigarettes and even scratch off lottery tickets placed in caskets where rosary beads use to be. Everything is about the here and now, and the creature comforts the dearly departed once enjoyed, not the eternal joy we hope for him now.

We could clear the decks of all traditionally held sexual mores, apart from rape which seems to be the only universally accepted restriction on sexual activity, and people still would not return to church. Why? Because the problem isn't sex; it's the prevailing spirit of secularism, materialism, consumerism and radical individualism: a collective world view of which the sexual revolution is a symptom.

If Humanae Vitae didn't exist we'd have to invent it, because without that narrative we'd have to face the fact that we tried to read the signs of the times after the Council, but failed, or more accurately only partially succeeded. We certainly failed in understanding what the entire concept of being able to read the prevailing narrative meant. We thought we were being called to spot trends, latch onto fads and ride political waves. We became locked onto micro movements and missed the big picture. If there was a big take way, it was for us to join in on the secular humanist parade as opposed to offering a counter narrative of Christian humanism. Unless we step back and see the big picture of what being a disciple of Christ is all about we will continue to stumble through history blind. Unless we really understand what the Christian narrative is at it's core, and express it, and really live it, radically, we should not hope that the tide will be turned any time soon.