Thursday, May 28, 2015

Quick Takes: Charlie, Charlie Challenge, The Ireland Vote, Should ISIS Make you Nervous?

Charlie, Charlie Challenge: Better to Stick to Water Buckets 

Over the last couple of days I've seen these posts on Facebook about the so called Charlie, Charlie Challenge. A geezer like me knowing about this can only mean that this latest internet phenomenon has been circulating around the kids for a while now.

Basically it's a ouija board for people with attention deficit, since the board itself has been reduced to small square with "Yes" and "No" quadrants, navigated by two pencils (no spelling required). Charlie, the challenge's name sake, is billed as a Mexican demon, and there are rules about how to gain and break contact with said Charlie. I don't want to give too much info, lest I inadvertently lead people to try it. I have mixed feelings about mentioning it at all, but feel moved by prayer to write at least this brief warning.


As I told the young people at Mass last night, you wouldn't purposely stand on a dangerous street corner where a lot of drive-bys take place. You wouldn't wear the wrong colors in the wrong neighborhood to see what'll happen. You wouldn't flash gang signs on the street for a laugh. The spiritual world is the same. When we play with these forces we open doors that are not easily closed. Whether Charle is a real demon is beside the point. Demons are real and will exploit any opening to lay a claim either on a person or a place, and he'll answer to Charlie, Captain Howdy, or Bobo the Monkey if it's to his advantage.

Let me be clear: playing these games does not necessarily lead to demonic possession. Possessions are extremely rare, even taking into account the recent rise in reports of such cases. But demonic oppression and infestations of places are arguably more common than we may think. That's why I recommend getting your house blessed and living a moral, prayerful life, which for Catholics includes the regular reception of Holy Communion and frequent confessions. And avoiding door openers like ouija boards, seances, fortune telling, palm readings along with any other form of spiritualism is vitally important.

Keeping the dark forces out is easy when you let God, who is life and light, in.

The Ireland Vote

I know that the recent vote to legalize gay marriage in Ireland has left many Catholics reeling. Ireland, once a bulwark of the Faith, has gone completely secular, and some would say is now anti-religion, not simply anti-Catholic. I'm troubled, like most of my sisters and brothers are, but I wish I could say I'm perplexed by this development, but I'm simply not. I'm one who thinks that social commentator Camille Paglia is correct, the current gender wars are a sign that Western Civilization is dying, and I would say it's already dead.

I have written at length in this space about the Catholic teaching on marriage, and I admit that I've backed off over the last couple of years. Not because I've reconsidered what I believe, rather that I've come to conclusion that all the blog posts in the world are not going to sway minds and hearts. As a culture we have chosen the path we want to walk, and now it's time to await the consequences of that choice. For those Catholics who remain in the truth (and I pray I receive the grace to do that) it will mean social marginalization, limits put on how and where we can minister, loss of tax exempt status and possibly jail for not accepting the new secular orthodoxy.

Both Pope Emeritus Benedict and the late Cardinal George have gotten praise and consternation for comments they made about where they see the Church and society heading. Benedict VVI spoke of a smaller, more faithful Church, George famously said that he expected to die in bed, his successor to die in jail and his successor to die a martyr. But the archbishop after that would help restore society, starting with the shards of a broken culture, much like the Church has done in the past. Both men were criticized as either looking for the Church to be an elitist organization, or else was guilty of being a prophet of doom. But both assessments are false.

Cardinal George, in his last major interview before he passed away clarified what he meant by those now famous (to some infamous) words. He stressed that this was a private conversation that he didn't expect to be made public. He also framed his observations, not as a prophesy, but as a worst case scenario. It's not that he expects that these things would happen, but even if they do come to pass, we shouldn't lose heart: the Church will still be there to pick the pieces up when the crisis is over. These were meant to be worlds of hope to a friend who was depressed over where he saw things heading.

As for Pope Benedict, a fuller understanding of the context of his comments, as we can see here in Fr. Dwight Lonhenecker's post, again shows that we're not talking about an ideal, but the logical consequences that will face the Church in an age of militant secularism. Those who choose to remain with the main body of the Church once doing so means loss of status, property, and possibly liberty, will likely be a relative few, human nature being what it is. Countless numbers chose to burn incense to the Roman emperor and surrender the sacred books to be destroyed in the early centuries of the Church rather then face, not only imprisonment, but possible death. Once the peace came the debate turned to whether to admit these apostates back into full communion (which the Church eventually did). How many will flee the persecution by renouncing the Faith is anybody's guess, and a guessing game better not to play. All of us will be tested, none of us is so strong as to boast that we will, without doubt, do the right thing. In light of this we all need to pray continually for the gifts of courage and wisdom.

Until then, there is no point being depressed or worried. Christ won the victory already. He always told us trials would come (persecutions, earthquakes, famines, wars and rumors of war) but he also assured us that these would not have the final word.

Should ISIS Make You Nervous?

I had a meeting of young adults at the parish last Friday, and two young women from another parish joined, what is a small but growing group. I was finishing up a talk on the Book of Revelation that I'd begun the month before. My main point was that, while the book does point to a definitive end of history as we understand it, it is also showing how history is a series of repeating patterns. Not that events repeat, but that the rise and fall of empires follow a predictable cycle, and the Church needs to know how to adapt to these ever changing circumstances. I then mentioned the Venerable Fulton Sheen's belief, expressed in the 1970's during a retreat he was giving to priests, that we're at the end of a Christendom. What he meant was that we were at the end of a unified Christian culture where Gospel values are at the root of our social, political and moral life. He claimed that history could be broken up into roughly five hundred year epochs, beginning with the birth of Jesus, and that we were now at the end of one such period.

One of our visitors looked up from the notebook that she was feverishly scribbling in, and asked, "What do you think of ISIS? They make me nervous." Normally this would be the time when I would make some reassuring comment about them being half a world away, and that they're really a rag tag outfit, the JV team, actually: no need to worry, at all. But I couldn't get myself to lie. These were adults I was talking to, so I said, "Well, they make me nervous, too."

Yes, they do make me a little nervous, mainly because the world's leaders don't seem to be taking them seriously. These are people who really believe in what they are doing, and they will stop at nothing to reach their objectives. There is no internal debate that I can see that they are having over who they are and what values they hold. We in the West really don't believe in anything. We say we believe in freedom of speech, but do we really? It seems that we do as long it doesn't offend anybody. Being self critical and self questioning is a healthy trait of Western Civilization. But we now question everything about ourselves, including the things that are genetically and anatomically obvious. Sheen would say that we have subordinated all moral and ethical values to the economic and the political. I would add another value: the emotional, or therapeutic. Because our leaders, and many of us, can't understand why people would fight for something beyond purely practical or even animal motives, they don't understand ISIS.

The secular society that at the same time dabbles in spiritualism, among other quasi religious activities, to fill the gap, is not prepared to stand up to a force of true believes, no matter how rag tag they seem. We are not ready to defend our society because we really don't believe in it. We take freedom for granted because we don't believe in responsibility. The world's leaders are making decisions based on political and economic considerations, and the electorate is being swayed more and more by emotions. This is a combination for disaster.

But I end, as I must, because I can't lie, on a positive note. I'm no prophet, nor am I from a school of prophets (as I think I've written before), but I have no doubt who's going to win this struggle. In the short term there will be trials and, dare I say, tribulations, but Christ won the victory already. I do believe, like John Paul the Great, that we are at the beginning of a new spring time for the Faith. Spiring brings flowers and new life, but also rain, and even a few thunder storms along the way. ISIS makes me nervous, sure, but not bowed, and certainly not defeated.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Wrap Up and Personal Farewell to Mad Men, Part 2

Taking up where I left off last time, Mad Men's last episode finds Don Draper on the road, feeling disconnected, displaced and still running from his past life. He lands at a Northern California crypto New Age style retreat. He goes, dragged by Stephanie, his "niece," in the hopes it will let him open up and come to grips with what is eating at his soul. 

I once described Don's journey as a descent down a corkscrew, and in a way the series finale proves the point. But not only does he go down the slide, he goes up it as well, only to slide right back again.   He's disappeared before, gone on benders, fallen into deep existential despair, contemplated running away for good, and, at the very least, implicitly considered suicide. He experiences all these things in the last ten minutes of the show, reaching his lowest point when he's found slumped down at a pay phone, paralyzed with grief, by a hippy. But, like Stan Rizzo put it, he always comes back, he's a survivor, and, I would add, is usually better, professionally at least, than before, which our ending seems to indicate will happen yet again.

Don always returns refreshed and ready to do corporate battle, but still labors under the same assumptions. He still believes that just moving forward, forgetting the past, even to the point of total personal reinvention is the answer to life's dilemmas. When Peggy secretly has Pete's baby (one of the more bazar story lines from early on), he tells her to get back to work and live as if it didn't happen. When Lane Pryce gets caught tampering with company funds, Don gives him the chance to resign gracefully so as to avoid being fired. Don lets him know that the toughest part is over: all he has to do now is start over with a clean slate. When Stephanie faces a similar dilemma to Peggy's, he tells her to just keep on moving forward; the farther you get away from the event the easier it gets to forget.

While Peggy does move on and become a successful copywriter, she is still haunted by the decision to give up the baby. She has a series of relationships that fail in part because she wants a life partner, but also wants her job; a balancing act difficult for a woman in any age, but especially in the 1960's. Lane, as a proud Briton, knows that there is no such thing as reinvention where he comes from. He's from an upperclass, prominent family, so going the Mayor of Casterbridge route isn't an option. Besides, he tried living a double life in America and the long arm of British manners stretched across the pond by way of his domineering father to stop him. To return to England under these circumstances isn't an option, so he hangs himself. Stephanie knows that Don has been on a treadmill his whole adult life and basically tells him to stop believing his own line of bull.

This is not to say that Don is unchanged over the course of the series. The Don Draper of the pilot is a  nihilistic hedonist living a complete lie, with little or no remorse. He softens somewhat as the seasons move on, but he remains, as his used and discarded secretary Allison proclaims, not a good person. But the Don of more recent vintage does try to make his marriage to Megan work, even after it's clearly not going to. He goes to Joan's apartment to tell her not to debase herself so the company could land the Jaguar account. He mentors Peggy and even tries a hand at fathering his children. He has many flaws still, and numerous failures, but with the big exception of his affair with Sylvia Rosen, his sins are often misguided attempts at setting things right. I'm thinking of his keeping his work situation a secret from Megan, not to hide an affair like she thinks but to give him time to get the job back and act like nothing happened (true to his philosophy of life). Or antagonizing the Jaguar dealer to settle a professional and personal score. For all his progress, any change in his inner life is small, but ironically significant.

Drama is about conflict and change. Mad Men had plenty of conflict, but many questioned if the characters, especially Don, had changed any by the end. I would say that the answer is both yes and no. In the series finale each major character gets their jumping off point to the next phase of their lives. Joan starts her own commercial production company, which costs her romance. Peggy ends up staying at McCann, like her head hunter told her to, but finally finds love with Stan (someone who really understands her). Pete gets back with Trudy and jets off to Wichita for job at Learjet and a second chance marriage. Roger marries Marie Calvet, Megan's mother, presumably cashing out at McCann and living in Montreal. Ted Chaough simply fades into the wood work at the new agency, happy to be just another piece of the furniture. In way, it's not that any of them changed, but that they came to know who they were and what they really wanted. Rather than fighting it, they went with it.

Of course Joan wants love, but she's also come to understand that she's always had a passion for the office. She has talents, experience and business acumen, and wants to take her shot at building something while she has the chance. With Stan's help, Peggy understands that she loves her job but really does want more than just a career. She may not be able to have it all, but she can have what she really wants and needs. Pete is tired of living his father's mistakes simply because he's expected to. Whether he and Trudy will make it work is anyone's guess, but they know that they're better together than apart. Roger wants to experience life, but  knows the Dionysian dream of the hippies is a dead end. So he finds an age appropriate partner who's still nuts enough to make life interesting and drops out in style. And Ted, well, he was burnt out being in the lead, and now gets to put it on autopilot, enjoying the perks of the biz while not having to carry so much of the load.

And so what about Don? He has the cathartic moment hearing the voice of his fellow office drone speaking the words of alienation and lovelessness he holds in his own heart at the group session in the commune. The next morning, as he greets the sun, it's more than implied that he's thinking up a new Coke ad campaign during morning meditation, as opposed to finding inner peace and detachment. So Don hasn't changed then; he's the same grasping capitalist swine he always was? Maybe. The real question is, has Don come to accept who he really is: an ad man who loves his job, who's had a difficult life but really did make something out of himself? He's not a great father, but has made progress in that area. Now that Betty is dying can he make further strides? Or will he continue on these spirals up and down the corkscrew slide of self loathing and self destruction? Will he continue to lie to himself, believing that just moving ahead, acting like the past hasn't happened is the answer, when it's cause him and the people around him so much pain?

The world may never come to know the answer to these questions, but it's great debating them.

As for me, there is so much more I could say, and maybe I will (I see I mentioned nothing about Betty or Sally). Maybe next week, though. Then I'll put on my personal feelings to go along with the analysis.

A Wrap Up and Personal Farewell to Mad Men, Part 1

While my love of cinema has never abated, my enthusiasm for its less artistically ambitious stepchild Television has waned considerably since my misspent youth as a TV junkie. Outside of sporting events I don't watch much of it anymore. So that I became so enthralled with the now concluded series Mad Men is a surprise to me. This is the only show that I've seen every episode of, and since watching it in "real time" in 2012, I've never missed a Sunday night telecast: a level of personal commitment to a show unprecedented in my 48 years on this earth.

My indoctrination came in late 2011 while the show was on its long, controversial hiatus. I binge watched the first four seasons on Netflix pretty much on a whim. I'd heard about the show, but it being off the air for over a year at that point, it fell off my radar. I started seeing articles about the show's return and became intrigued by the 1960's setting, how Matthew Weiner and his crew were obsessive about detail, and decided to take a look. The sixties was the era I was born into, and have always had a fascination with. From that point, I never looked back.

I did have to do some soul searching though. In many respects Mad Men was a soap opera: one with fantastic writing and production values, but a soap opera nonetheless. So why did I like it so much? What it came down to was that it was one of the few programs on TV dealing with ideas. It was a soap opera at times, but the characters were well drawn. Weiner tried to make sure that even minor characters had a back story so that they weren't just serving someone else' motivation. It did give you a view into the advertising industry of there 60's, but it wasn't a procedural drama or antiquarian exercise. In many ways the campaigns they were working on were unimportant. The important things were the big issues: sexism, racism (which some critics feel they did't handle enough), changing sexual mores and religious values, and the evils of capitalistic consumerism. But it also hit deeply personal issues of self identity, guilt, isolation, alienation and the meaning of life in general. So, for me, the historic details are what drew me in, the melodrama that made me feel a tad guilty, and the overall depth of characters and themes that kept me and drew me in.

So what about the the finale, and the last half season?

I'll hit the second point first, just so I can get the criticism out of the way. I do believe that splitting up the last season into two parts hurt the overall flow of the story. I'm not up on the economics of it all, and my understanding is that this was primarily a money issue for the network, AMC, but the whole thing would have been better served by two full seasons or just one, unified season seven. Last year the show was on it's typical roll, and then it felt like it had an artificially quick wrap up. Mad Men was always a slow moving ship. The themes and story lines unfolded little by little, almost imperceptibly. Many times we'd be getting down to the last five or ten minutes of an episode and I wouldn't be sure what the story was about or where it was heading. Most network TV is predictable; you can drop in at almost any point and figure out what's going on. Not with Mad Men; you had to watch from beginning to end to get it. And increasingly, as the seasons progressed,a viewer needed to have seen it from the first episode to understand what was happening in a given moment. Each show may have had a self contained story, but the subtext was vital, and not being in the know would leave you as stranded as Don at a rural bus stop with just the cloths on his back and a Sears bag of dirty laundry.

For Season 7.5 the issue was time, and tying off old strings while keeping things fresh by introducing some new ones. Looking back I can see what Weiner was up to in the second half, but his meandering ways were at odds with the urgency of the ticking clock counting down to the final scene. Many fans were disconcerted about the introduction of the Diana Baur character (Elizabeth Reaser) as a new love interest for Don. With only a few episodes left we wanted to see more of Joan, Peggy or Pete. There are only so many more opportunities to savor a Roger Sterling zinger. Even another Bert Cooper hallucination would be welcomed. All many of us were asking was, "who is this woman and why should I care?" And, "can we get back to Mrs. Rosen, please."

In spite of the hemming and hawing, and as much as I hate to admit it, it fit: Diana represented many things. My guess is that, because of her physical resemblance, she was the ghost of both Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) and Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardinale), two of Don's lost, idealized loves. She also is a female version of Don: a person with a past she is running from, riddled by guilt and remorse. Unlike Don she's not trying to forget or reinvent herself, at least not in the same way. Don grew up in rural poverty, living out his adolescence in and around a brothel. He swindles and cons his way into a middle class, and later upper class existence. All the while hiding behind a stolen identity, trying desperately to blot out any remembrance of Dick Whitman. Based on Don's visit to Diana's former Wisconsin home, she is escaping a comfortable middle class life. She goes downward, living in squalid SRO's and working in roach infested greasy spoons. She even engages in prostitution, albeit inadvertently, mistaking an extravagant tip from Roger for solicitation by Don. She is descending into hell, or at least purgatory, running away from the comfortable life she knew, but never allowing herself to forget why she's there.

Don becomes obsessed with her. He sees a kindred spirit: a wounded soul like his own running from the past. But she has no interest escaping her final judgement. When she moves, leaving no forwarding address, he goes off to look for her (his reasons for bouncing from McCann-Erickson to go on yet another extended, unauthorized road trip are manifold, though). He gets to Wisconsin assuming not one, but two more false identities in the course of a few minutes, to try and get information as to Diana's whereabouts. But the ex-husband sees through it, knows he's a fake, sternly sending him on his way.

Now his journey is not so much about finding a particular woman as it is about, once again, trying to find out who he really is and where he belongs. He passes through a small plains town and sees a glimpse of what things might have been like if he had lived life as Dick Whitman; idyllic at first, but then he's run out of town when he's falsely accused of stealing by the same folks that seemed so amenable before. After giving his car away to the young grifter who set him up, he finds his way to Utah, helping out a couple gear heads getting their hot rod ready for a competition. They're appreciative, but a little suspicious of a stranger with no car who knows more about motors then they do. When he finds out that his first wife, Betty, has terminal lung cancer his immediate response is to want to go "home" and take custody of the children. But neither Betty nor their daughter Sally thinks this is a good idea, and tell him to stay away. He visits California next, dropping in on Stephanie, the real Don Draper's niece, who, after greeting him warmly, also looks with suspicion on his unexpected arrival.

This theme of Don's displacement was prominent through out the season. Two brief visits to Betty's new home and family situation makes it clear that he is the odd man out, not only in Betty's life but in his children's lives as well. When he visits the now deceased Rachel Menken's apartment where relatives and neighbors are sitting shiva, her sister is none too happy to see in the flesh a man she had only heard about. She asks a question that would be echoed either literally or in subtext throughout these seven episodes, "what are you doing here?" He more and more feels as if he has no home, and isn't wanted. He's not even at home in his own apartment, since second wife Megan surreptitiously took all the furniture on her way out of their marriage. The one place that wants him, McCann-Erickson, Don wants no part of. He's a trophy for this giant firm, one stag's head mounted on the wall among many others. So he bounces, mid presentation, to take to the road, ostensibly to find Diana, but really, once again, to try and find himself and where he belongs.

I'll never get all my thoughts on Don out, let alone touch on the other cast of characters and their fates, in one post. So I'll end it here, and save it for next time.

Monday, May 18, 2015

"Mad Men" Finale Quick Take

I had been preparing a post for last week as a sort of lead in to the big Mad Men finale last night, but pastoral concerns kept me from engaging in my favorite leisure time activity, writing. So just a quick take on last night's Mad Men wrap up. A more detailed reflection to follow.

Matthew Weiner has said that he always knew what the last shot of Don Draper would be, though he wasn't always sure how he was going to get there. Well, our man in creative, sitting lotus position on a Northern California cliff overlooking the Pacific, facing east to meet the sunrise, eyes closed with a Mona Lisa grin, letting out a heart felt "Ommmmm," was quite a sight. So, Mr. Materialistic Consumerism is embracing Eastern Mysticism and letting go of his attachment to the material world so as to find inner peace and enlightenment? Not so much. As the coda more than implies, he's thinking up an ad campaign for Coca Cola.

And not just any ad campaign. Probably the most iconic, true to it's period, exploitative of it's period and successful ad campaign in the history of advertising.

Many commentators have said that the great theme of Mad Men revolves around the issue of whether people can truly change. One can make an argument that all the main characters here do experience some change in their seven season journey (ten years in the show's story line). But, while Don didn't die as many had predicted, and he does seem to be happy, he really is the same as he was when the show started: running from his past, and believing that running from one's past is the answer to life's problems, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. And most of all, he is the job. Even in the midst of this last half season where he seems to be stripping off the fake self to get back to who he really is, it proves to be a failed project. He may have changed names, stealing a dead man's identity, it was always a paper identity. Don Draper is Dick Whitman; a hustler looking for an angle. Don Draper does find peace by embracing who he really is, but who he is is the same person he always was: a high priced snake oil salesman who's never satisfied until he gets 100 percent.

As for the parting shot and coda: brilliant. It's ironic, and brings things to a close while still leaving room for our imagination to wonder where things go from here: for Don, certainly, but for the others as well. More on Don, and the rest, soon.

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.