Monday, September 26, 2016

The Brebeuf Drawings of William Kurelek

One of the hidden treasures of the Martyrs' Shrine in Midland, Ontario, is the set of drawings by William Kurelek depicting St. Jean de Brebeuf and his companions, the 17th century Jesuits, whose gentle missionary life among the Huron or Wendat people came to a tragic end when the Huron nation was destroyed by the Iroquois in 1649, and the Jesuits abandoned the Sainte Marie mission.

Kurelek is one of Canada's iconic painters. His works hang in the National Art Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and numerous collections, private and public throughout the country. His great output covered Canadian life both urban and rural, past and present -- and even future through his Dali-esque apocalypses. For a fuller description of the enigmatic but fascinating artist, see "The Resurrection of William Kurelek".

To my knowledge, there are no reproductions of the "Huronia Mission Paintings" drawings in print [except for a 1991 academic monograph]. For many years they were displayed behind glass beneath the church at the Shrine, and it was difficult to take good photographs of them. They are now in archival storage while the Shrine church awaits development. But the following give a sense of the drawings' originality. The inmistakable style of Kurelek, as well as his own personal devotion (he converted to Catholicism in 1957), are evident in the composition of persons and events.

(Click on images to enlarge. The captions are Kurelek's own titles )

1. Recollet missionary in North America.

2. Father Brebeuf setting out from Three Rivers on mission to Huronia.

3. Father Brebeuf suffers from water glare.

4. Huron guides maneuvering the rapids.

5. Father Brebeuf and guides turning in during the voyage.

Brebeuf described his own experience of 1634 as follows: "To be sure, I was at times so weary that my body could do no more. But at the same time my soul was filled with great happiness as I realized that I was suffering this for God. No one can know this feeling unless he has experienced it."

(6. Map showing Three Rivers to Huronia Route. Not pictured here. Similar to the one below, it showed the route, which went from the St. Lawrence, up the Ottawa River, then across through Lake Nipissing and the French River, and south to the bottom of the Georgian Bay. The trip took about a month.)

7. Map of the Lower Great Lakes mission area.

The land called Huronia is a relatively small but fertile region between the Georgian Bay, Lake Huron and Lake Simcoe in present-day Ontario. The Huron/Wendat were unusual among native peoples in that they were primarily an agricultural nation, planting vast crops of corn, beans and squash, and fishing in the abundant waters of the nearby lakes. Other tribes, such as the Algonquin and Petun, would trade with them for food.

8. Father Brebeuf baptizes a dying man.

9. At the height of Huronia mission, thousands came into the church.

In this drawing, Brebeuf is depicted baptizing the neophyte converts in the St. Joseph Chapel at Sainte-Marie.

10. Iroquois ambush Father Jogues' party.

11. Father Jogues and Rene Goupil give themselves up to be with the captive Hurons.

(There are three drawings that are not on display at the Shrine in Midland titled "12. Rene Goupil is martyred", "13. Father Jogues is martyred", and "14. Jean de la Lande is martyred")

15. Map showing Iroquois advance in the Huron mission.

In 1649 a large army of Iroquois warriors was making its way north into Huronia. Though outnumbered, the Huron men decided to attempt to defend the village of St. Louis, and are depicted being blessed by a Jesuit, while another assists at evacuating the women, children and elderly.

16. Fathers Brebeuf and Lalemant prepare the mission fort for the Iroquois attack.

17. They give last rites to dead and dying defenders.

According to historians, the Hurons repelled the first assault, and then a second. But on the third assault the Iroquois broke through the palisade of stakes and took the village.

18. After Huron dispersal, Jesuits push West and North.

The Huron/Wendats had called Brebeuf “Echon”, which meant “He who carries heavy loads”.

19. Stories of Blackrobe courage travels ahead of them.

20. Even the Plains Indains welcome the Jesuits.

 After the destruction of Huronia, certain Jesuits and many Huron survivors in diaspora would spread Christianity across North America.

21. And in the end even the dread Iroquois let them into their towns.

After a slow trial period in which a handful of Jesuits lived and worked among the Iroquois, during which 20-30 were baptized including five chiefs, in 1667 the missionaries began to serve all Five Nations of the Iroquois confederacy, and made notable converts such as the young Mohawk woman St. Kateri Tekakwitha.

Kurelek's drawings depict delicate relations between French missionaries and Huron/Wendat First Nations. The mission was extremely difficult, but through careful learning of the language and observation of customs, their efforts afforded them a tact that won them many converts and friends. Kurelek probably read this letter that Brebeuf wrote to France, offering advice to aspiring young missionaries:

You must love these Hurons, ransomed by the blood of the Son of God, as brothers. You must never keep the Indians waiting at the time of embarking. Carry a tinder-box or a piece of burning-glass, or both, to make fire for them during the day for smoking, and in the evening when it is necessary to camp; these little services win their hearts. Try to eat the food they offer you, and eat all you can, for you may not eat again for hours. Eat as soon as day breaks, for Indians, when on the road, eat only at the rising and the setting of the sun. Be prompt in embarking and disembarking and do not carry any water or sand into the canoe. Be the least troublesome to the Indians. Do not ask many questions; silence is golden. Bear with their imperfections, and you must try always to be and to appear cheerful. Carry with you a half-gross of awls, two or three dozen little folding knives (jambettes), a hundred or so fish-hooks, and some plain and fancy beads with which to buy fish or other commodities from the nations you meet, in order to feast your Indian companions, and be sure to tell them from the outset that here is something with which to buy fish. Always carry something during the portages. Do not begin to paddle unless you intend always to paddle. The Indians will keep later that opinion of you which they have formed during the trip. Always show any other Indians you meet on the way a cheerful face and show that you readily accept the fatigues of the journey... 
Jesus Christ is our true greatness; it is he alone and his cross that should be sought in running after these people, for, if you strive for anything else, you will find naught but bodily and spiritual affliction. But having found Jesus Christ in his cross, you have found the roses in the thorns, sweetness in bitterness, all in nothing.

-- From “Instructions for the Fathers of our Society who shall be sent to the Hurons”, Reuben G. Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents. Vol. 12, 118-121.

The Feast Day of the Canadian Martyrs is celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church on Sept 26 in Canada (and Oct 19 in the General Calendar).

Monday, May 16, 2016

Ten Popular Songs that Point to the Transcendent

One of the most-viewed posts here was called "Ten Secular Songs with Religious Themes". Now, I'm not that person who scours the pop cultural landscape with a magnifying glass looking for oblique references to a latent Christianity. But I do believe that Christ is very much alive, and can be found in the remotest corners of humanity. Sometimes the profoundest truths are not in theology books but in the lyrics of the poets and the insights of artists.

Four years later, I'd say it's time for a sequel. The following songs have in common a certain degree of popular acclaim, although not be familiar to all readers. They are, I submit, beautiful songs that point beyond the mundane, offering glimpses of the transcendent -- that is to say, of God who is beyond this material world, while nonetheless present in this life as well. They remind us that we will one day see God "face to face", and generally reflect the key dispositions of faith, hope and love that anticipate that meeting.

First. Back in 1998 a Canadian artist with an extraordinarily powerful voice named Amanda Marshall wrote a song called "I Believe in You". It was about the value of having faith in someone. What I found intriguing, and still do, is that the first-person narrator remains deliberately ambiguous: is it Amanda singing to her son? To someone else? We see a whole lifetime in sequence, from a birth to a death, with all the major landmarks of a human life in between, so it seems to be almost from a divine perspective. Thus, in the end, for me it is a love song from God to each one of us.

Second. This song came out in January 2016 just after David Bowie died from cancer. A man who seemed to personify the ambiguities and angst of the past forty years, and the constant search for personal reinvention, his death struck a chord with people the world over. "Lazarus", his posthumous final act, is a stunningly melancholic and plaintive hymn that yearns for the transcendence that will soon come. Actually written on his deathbed, the song's lyrics have been much-discussed, but I hear a man on the threshold of encountering his Creator, taking stock of his life in an almost confessional way, and making a plea that despite all of his meanderings, doubts and misgivings, still has a reckless hope.

Third. Continuing the theme of the afterlife, this song from Wiz Khalifa called "See You Again", was featured at the end of the adrenaline film Furious 7. What gives the song lift is the fact that it is an in memoriam to actor Paul Walker, who was accidentally killed on the set of this film. It becomes a paean to the bonds of friendship and of family. Above all, it testifies to the enduring belief that this is not the end of the story. As the title indicates, it too is suffused with the spirit of hope.

Fourth. Back in 1999 Celine Dion wrote this winsome tune called "That's the Way it Is", in which the beloved Quebecoise chanteuse sang about the fundamental importance of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, and their inter-relations. Seriously. That's essentially what the song is about:
When you're ready to go and your heart's left in doubt / Don't give up on your faith / Love comes to those who believe it / And that's the way it is.  Amen.

Fifth. The Danish group Lukas Graham is climbing international charts with their pop hip-hop song about growing up and anticipating aging. While striking for its millennial vibe, "7 Years" is equally remarkable for its lack of cynicism and openness to the wisdom of fathers and to the true goods in life, like love, children and the gift of time. It seems wise beyond its years, while not in any way pretentious, and exudes something like joy in the midst of life's mysteries.

Sixth. Taking a break from the mainstream limelight, one might savour this casually recorded video of gospel singer Calesta Day warming up in a church somewhere. Have you heard of her? Neither had I. But turn it up and hear it through, and you will have soul-shivers all day. Called "Hear My Prayer", she just keeps going and going, with a range that scrapes the upper echelons of the vocal ceiling, to some baritone depths that will melt your spiritual mind.

Seventh. Ed Sheeran's song "I See Fire" from one of Peter Jackson's Hobbit films, has a remarkable depth of feeling that captures the textures of fraternal communion and the anticipation of shared sacrifice. It is essentially a prayer, in which he sings "calling out, father...", making the petition "I hope that you remember me". The overall theme is the willingness to lay down one's life, should it be necessary, with the comfort of camaraderie to blunt the fear, and the invocation of the mysterious "father" to be with them in their time of adversity.

Eighth. The Fray is a Denver-based rock band whose 2012 song "Be Still" invites comparisons to Psalm 23. "When you go through the valley and shadow comes down from the hill / If morning never comes to be / Be still, be still, be still." A peaceful, minimalist piece about remembering the One from whom we came, and who is the source of all being: "Be still and know I am."

Ninth. Bek O'Brien's hymn to humility and strength in trial and adversity, "Lion's Den" is lovely beyond words. Her jazzy folkloric sound resounds through the entire album of the same name, which contains a song-list that is infused with pathos and heartstring lyricism. I should disclose that Bek is my first cousin, but my fandom transcends bloodlines and is based upon my appreciation for her raw and undiluted musical talent. Here is a live version of "Lion's Den". If readers can find her whole album, they might also take a deep listen to "Pendulum" and "Doubt", among other tracks. They will not be disappointed.

Ten. Love must have the final word. Let's end on a folky vibe, and retrieve Bob Dylan's 1973 acoustic panegyric called "Wedding Song". It is clearly written from one spouse to another, yet might also be heard in a more layered way, like the Song of Songs. There is not a good version on YouTube that can be embedded here, so follow this link and feel the love.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Andy Warhol in Toronto

Today I popped into the Andy Warhol exhibit (no pun intended) on Bloor Street.

There was a very large stack of Campbell's vegetable soup cans (which were very real).

Then I caught Vladimir Lenin scowling at me, both in black and red.

Although separate pieces, the Gotti and Lenin I put side by side for comparison. They represent criminal minds who get popular appeal:

Despite his many complex struggles, Warhol was practicing Catholic, of the Ruthenian rite, who would slip into church in Manhattan. This was the only religious work at the exhibit, labelled as St. Apollonia, a 3rd century martyr.


In the documentary film, I overhear Warhol being asked if he is original or not. He says "no." Confounded, the interviewer asks: "Don't you want to do something original?" He replies: "No. This is easier."

The well-known dollar sign print:

Warhol, famously shy and withdrawn, was a bit intimidated by the charismatic athletes he did for a "major athletes" series. There was also a Gretzky print I should have captured, but here, a pop boxer of some repute:

Her Majesty's eyes pierced me to the core:

I believe I was able to identify all the characters from this "wild west" series of screen prints:

And what is probably the most famous Warhol, the Marilyn Monroe:

More soup cans, this time prints on a wall.

The King of Pop:

These things were for actually sale, not part of a pop-art exhibition. It wasn't always clear. 

When Andy Warhol died, there was a memorial Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.

The "Andy Warhol: Revisited" exhibition opened on July 1, and will close on Dec 31. I was glad to have seen a healthy sampling of his works. He will remain an enigmatic but influential figure in the history of modern art.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

It’s a Wonderful Life

Review by John D. O'Brien S.J.

Director: Frank Capra. 130 min., U.S.A, 1946.
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers

The townspeople of Bedford Falls are sending up prayers for George Bailey (Stewart), who is in great distress. Their prayers are heard and the angel Clarence (Travers) is assigned to come down and convince George to not commit suicide. George is a good man, who sacrificed the dreams of his youth to serve the needs of his neighbours. He gave up traveling the world and going to university, and inherited the savings and loan business from his father. Over the years he resisted the proposals of avaricious banker Mr. Potter (Barrymore) to buy out the family business. He married the lovely Mary Hatch (Reed) and had four children with her. When his Uncle Billy (Mitchell) loses $8,000 of their clients’ money, George believes he is facing ruin and that he is worth more dead than alive. Once Clarence sees he is not able to persuade George that life is worth living, he decides to show him the life in the town as if George had never existed.

Film History
Nobody in Hollywood wanted the script about a man who learns what life would be like if he had never been born. But Frank Capra, fresh off his project of producing war-time documentaries, scooped it up, rewrote the screenplay, and cast Jimmy Stewart and newcomer Donna Reed. When the film opened in late 1946, however, Capra’s special project received mediocre reviews. Post-war America was in the mood for light comedy, not an existential reflection-piece. Nominated for five Academy Awards, it came home with none. So how did the film become the champion it is considered today? Probably two factors: first, within a year, Capra began receiving letters, including more than 1500 stuffed in a bag from the inmates of San Quentin Prison, which described the profound impact the film had on them. The letters kept coming from all over America for years; Capra’s film was connecting deeply with the people.

Second, there was an office error that might today be called providential. In 1974, the studio accidentally forgot to renew its copyright ownership and the film passed into the public domain. Television networks saw an opportunity and began to broadcast it every year, exposing Capra’s film to new audiences (the rights are owned by NBC today). Over time, the generations have come to realize the film’s enduring, universal appeal. In 2006, it was ranked as the #1 Most Inspirational Film by the American Film Institute. The AFI also rated it the #20 Greatest Movie of All Time. Both Capra and his star Jimmy Stewart both said that of all the films they ever did, It’s a Wonderful Life was their favourite.

“Until we realize that things might not be, we cannot realize that things are. Until we see the background of darkness we cannot admire the light as a single and created thing. As soon as we have seen that darkness, all light is lightning, sudden, blinding, and divine. Until we picture nonentity we underrate the victory of God, and can realize none of the trophies of His ancient war. It is one of the million wild jests of truth that we know nothing until we know nothing.”   
— G.K. Chesterton

Ignatius has two things to say about love. First, that love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words. As the saying goes, words are cheap, but actions speak volumes. How we act is a more eloquent expression of where our heart is than all the “heart-felt” beliefs we may profess ardently in our speech. I once saw a fridge magnet that said: “Everyone wants to save the world, but nobody wants to help mom do the dishes.”

George Bailey is the everyman who has had to subvert his idealistic dreams to serve his town. How he does this is described by second point of St. Ignatius with regard to love: that love consists in a mutual sharing of goods. The lover gives and shares with the beloved what he possesses, and vice versa, the beloved shares with the lover. "So, if one has knowledge, one shares it with the one who does not possess it. The same happens if one has honours or wealth and so on." George Bailey spends his life sharing what he has with his neighbours. The Bailey Building and Loan exists to help the blue-collar workers and the newcomers to town. It invests in the community and allows immigrant families to own their own homes rather than have to rent dingy apartments from Mr. Potter.

George’s generosity has become instinctual, a part of who he is. We see flashbacks to several key incidents in his life that have developed this trait: he rescued his brother Harry from drowning after he fell through some ice, he prevented a grieving pharmacist from accidentally poisoning a customer, and he saved the Building and Loan several times. George, it is not too much to say, acted out of an authentic concern for his family and for his town, sharing the “goods” of his courage, his availability, his sense of justice and the common good. This is, perhaps, the foremost point of It’s a Wonderful Life. What makes life wonderful, then, but the love – as described by Ignatius – exchanged between persons – the giving of ourselves and our possessions, even if they seem small and inconsequential.

George, of course, does not recognize this trait, and even struggles with his decisions, as we often do. If he was aware of his generosity, it would have lessened its quality, for self-conscious generosity becomes the do-goodery that is a parody of love, and which tends to annoy rather than build up.
George is entirely oblivious of the fact that he is a good man until the very end, which endears him to us. Even at the finale, it is the surprise of the discovery that captures George, which overpowers into gratitude, and restores him to joy.

In the “Fourth Week” of the Spiritual Exercises, the retreatant contemplates the joy of the resurrection, and thereby attains a surprising new kind of love for the Lord. The resurrection was unexpected – even for the disciples who were supposed to know better. We should all be open to being surprised by God, but not without faith: “If we lose our sense of wonder, no wonders will occur among us”. Genuine faith helps us recover our sense of wonder. George Bailey found it when he realized that everything about his life had been a gift: his existence, his friendships, the impact he’d inadvertently had on others.  St. Ignatius invites us to consider everything about our lives that is also a gift – namely everything. Since we are not the authors of our own existence, there is something fundamentally generous in the mere act of being alive. If we can get a glimpse of the gratuity of our existence, we get a glimpse of the nature of the Creator.

Meditation Points
Begin each prayer period with the prayer recommended by St. Ignatius. Ask God our Lord for the grace: “for an intimate knowledge of the many blessings I have received, so that, filled with gratitude, I may so love and serve God in all things.”

  1. Bring to mind all the blessings I have received: of creation, of redemption, and of all the many special blessings. Consider how God desires to give from what he possesses. Consider what it is that I possess.
  2. Bring to mind creation. A) How God dwells in all creatures, from the elements that exist in him, to the life in plants, in the sensation of animals, and in human person who has the gift of understanding. B) That God dwells in me, giving me life, sensation and intelligence. C) How I am a temple of God, created in the image and likeness of God. 
  3. Bring to mind all the blessings, graces and gifts that have come to me from outside myself, from above: my limited powers, justice, goodness, mercy, love, and so on, which all descend from the Creator, like rays of light from the sun, or water from a fountain. Reflect on myself and give thanks.

Finally, we may make the “Suscipe prayer”, also called Take Lord, and Receive:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. You have given all to me. To You, O Lord, I return it. All is yours, dispose of it wholly according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace, for this is sufficient for me. Amen.
Close each meditation with a personal conversation with Jesus (called a “colloquium”) and an “Our Father”.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Of Gods and Men

Review by John D. O'Brien, S.J.

Director: Xavier Beauvois, 122 min., France, 2010.
Starring: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin

Based on the true story of the eight Trappist monks of the Monastery of Notre-Dame de l’Atlas, who in 1996 found themselves caught in the midst of the Algerian Civil War. The monks live a quiet life of work and prayer and friendship with the Muslim villagers of Tibhirine. Threatened by terrorist factions, they are urged to flee the country. This triggers an excruciating discernment: to leave or to stay with the people they have come to know and love.

Film History
Nominated for many awards, and winning three at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, including the Grand Prize of the Jury.

Spiritual Reflection
It is rare to see a religious film of such power as Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men. It is not a film about the monks’ deaths, which were hailed as martyrdoms, but rather about how they lived and why they were willing to die. The monks were more “martyrs of charity” than martyrs due to hatred of the faith. The film explores the why this was the case.

In the so-called “Third Week” of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, having made the decision to reform one’s life, and the choice to follow the Lord in previous “weeks”, the retreatant’s decision is now tested. Are we willing to be remain with the Lord, even to his ignoble end? Will we follow him, through his passion, to the very foot of the cross? This is the time of ratification of our prior decision. In another sense, it’s a period of learning to see and love the Lord in a whole new light, as the suffering servant, the Lamb of God.

Of all the moments of Christ’s passion in which Of Gods and of Men could be placed, it is above all the Garden of Gethsemane. The monks are experiencing the anguish of an uncertain decision to be made, of the anticipation of suffering, of the demands of love, and of the pathos that this chalice contains. “Pathos” is should be said, normally means a situation in which one both desires and does not desire something and at the same time. We are asked to journey with the monks in their anguish, “keeping watch” with them for just two hours of our time, but over many days of their time. The film is a contemplative experience, one suffused with the power of human presence. Just as the monks comfort one another in fraternal solidarity, so can we comfort Christ in his agony by our decision to remain with him. Presence is a primary language of love. Those who have learned it know that many words are not needed. Loneliness is one of the greatest afflictions of our age, a major poverty in the West. The remedy is to present ourselves attentively – the gift of our presence and our time. In this way we discover the hidden face of Christ in the other.

There are other themes in this film; it is also a reflection on the nature of community, authority, mission, freedom and obedience. But its greatest strength is its treatment, on a more fundamental level, of this: what does it mean to love my neighbour? Everybody in the monastery agrees that they are not called to pursue martyrdom per se. They want to respect the basic human vocation to keep and preserve one’s life. But in the face of the possibility of death, how is that fundamental law altered by Christ’s teaching that “greater love hath no man than to lays down his life for his friends”. But they are not saving lives here. What reason is there to remain at such a cost?

Film critic Roger Ebert did not like the monks’ decision, feeling that their martyrdom was a form of selfishness, when they still had years and talents to dispense to the world. This utilitarian approach to human love and service risking ignoring the very nature of love – its freedom to give itself – which is also the foundation of the film’s own dramatic tension. The Trappists chose to stay with the people among whom they live in the here and now, their immediate flesh and blood friends, the people they knew in the present time. Love is the hermeneutic key to this drama, but a messy, difficult love that is not and cannot be exercised in the abstract. We learn, in a variety of scenes, that the monks are committed to the local people. This relationship was the very reason for which they lived, and Ebert misses the point, both theologically, of course, but also, I think, aesthetically. Their decision, pretty much known to the viewer in advance, is the reason we find the film beautiful.

If the “Third Week” is to meditate on the passion of Christ, this seems an odd place to consider beauty. But I think it’s the best place. For if we come to love that which is viscerally unattractive (the street person, the sick or disfigured), it’s because we have nonetheless perceived something beautiful in them. Let’s examine beauty for a moment – even the beauty of tragedy or of suffering. Aquinas described beauty simply as “id quod visum placet” (that which pleases when seen), and this film pleases us because it represents a mystery well. It conveys resplendently the mystery of God’s interaction with human freedom – which is the essence of all good drama. The film is beautiful because it has beauty’s classic qualities: integrity, proportion and clarity, but it also goes beyond them.

The film’s beauty is more than just its visual presentation, although it includes that. There is an integrity, meaning wholeness, because there is a completeness to its illustration of the dynamic of love. There is proportionality, meaning right ratio between elements, a balance of the film’s constitutive parts. Although the dramatic tension is strong, the visuals and editing are serene, in a way befitting a story whose theme is the mystery of self-donation. There is little music beyond the psalm chants of the monks themselves, although there is a crescendo with the inclusion of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in the celebrated “Last Supper” scene. The liturgical chants in the chapel scenes are fittingly solemn auditory expressions of the paschal mystery unfolding in the human story; the chants’ elegance and simplicity – sung by the actors themselves – evoke the inter-dwelling of the mundane and the sublime, where the human and divine meet in the recesses of the heart. But above all it’s the long stretches of silence that are the most eloquent, given the sobriety and sacredness of the theme. There is also a pleasing ratio between scenes which parallel episodes from the life of Christ, which I will leave to the viewer to identify. Finally, there is also a pleasing proportion between exterior views of bright landscapes and natural scenery with the dim interior scenes of the monastery, an interplay of visual richness and austerity. This brings to mind the relationship between interiority and exteriority in liturgical experience, and contributes to the film’s abiding sense of reverence.

The third quality, clarity, could be said to shine from the film’s understatement or restraint. It allows characters to make statements that illumine the story without sounding moralizing or preachy. The tension of the drama, as well as the radicality of their own vocation as monks, gives them the credibility to make spiritual insights without didacticism. Brother Luc declares philosophically to his superior, “I’m not scared of death. I am a free man”. Br. Christian’s voice-over of the letter he wrote to his family in Europe is the summit of this kind of radiant speaking. There is a equilibrium between their actual lives and their spiritual statements, their walk and their talk, which permits the film to shine forth in spiritual luminosity. In the final analysis, it is the brightness of the true martyr – the credibility of authentic Christian witness.

All this might help us understand why this film is beautiful. But the final word must be on the reason we might find the “unattractive” beautiful. God entered the world, the philosophers tell us, sub specie contraria (in contrary appearance), in weakness and death, thereby elevating these negatives to the Positive, redeeming what was formerly worthless. Today, then, we can see beauty in all things, even the apparently “ugly”. This is why the Christian can see the face of Christ in the broken and disfigured, and why the cross is held up as perennially exquisite.

If art, as Bernard Lonergan holds, is always “relevant to concrete living” and is “a fundamental element in the freedom of consciousness itself” (because we need perspective to understand our own lives), then Of Gods and Men impels us by its intrinsic beauty to ask how I might change or live my life according to Christian love. And it invites us to follow the Suffering One on his journey up a lonely hill.

Meditation Points
Begin all meditations with the prayer recommended by St. Ignatius. Ask God our Lord for the grace “that all my intentions, actions, and operations may be ordered purely to his service and praise.”

1. Pray on the Last Supper (John 13-17). This is the “farewell discourse” of Jesus. Read the entire discourse, and note any three points or teachings that strike you. When you are finished reading, return to those three points and pray with each of them.
2. Pray on the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26: 36-56).
3. Pray on the Way of the Cross and Calvary (Matt 27: 24-54).

Close each meditation with an “Our Father”.

The text of Fr. Christian's letter:
Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know, I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly. 
I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for the people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism. 
This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. 
My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me na├»ve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insha’Allah.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Il Vangelo Secondo San Mateo

Review by John D. O'Brien, S.J.

(The Gospel According to Saint Matthew)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini, 137 min., Italy, 1964.
Starring: Enrique Irazoqui, Margherita Caruso, Susanna Pasolini
Music: Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev, Bacalov, Odetta.


In the Judean countryside, Jesus begins to preach, attracting disciples and sometimes multitudes. His is stern and demanding: “I have not come to bring peace but the sword”. He is also in a hurry, constantly moving from place to place. His teachings often criticize the powers that be, which attracts the attention of the Pharisees, elders and chief priests. He is arrested, beated, tried and crucified. Afterwards he appears to his disciples and gives them instructions.

Film History

Filmed in the style of Italian neo-realism, which is stark, gritty, and believed that ordinary people, rather than actors, were best suited to play characters (not any character, but the one they were born to play), the film was the creation of Pier Paolo Pasolini, a controversial director who made some 25 films. He was an atheist Marxist, whose personal life was chaotic (and he was murdered in mysterious circumstances), but his film saw the light after he was staying in a hotel room during a conference in Assisi. While there, he found a copy of the Gospels, and “read them straight through.” He would later say that the notion of basing a film on one of them “threw in the shade all the other ideas for work that I had in my head.” The resulting film was nominated for 3 Academy Awards, and won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1964.

Spiritual Reflection

What to make of Pasolini’s telling of the Gospel? This film turns our conventional notions of this story upside down. It avoids melodrama and overacting, but is direct, spare and minimalist. The actors do not look what we imagine the characters to look like (very few beards). Their speech is rendered dispassionately – uncharacteristically for Italians – without animation or expression (mostly). And the pace is somehow different: the camera dwells on faces longer than we are used to, directing our attention to their expressions, to their interiority? At other times the speed of speech is disconcerting. For example, Jesus races through the Sermon on the Mount, so fast you have to pay attention to keep up. The transitions between scenes are also abrupt, as is the unrolling of dramatic action. The angel is suddenly just there. The apostles jump off boats and follow. The leper who was disfigured is instantly healed, with a camera cut to his clean face so sudden it would be comical were it not for a sense the director could have used dramatic special effects, but chose to show the miracle as the Gospel tells it: “and immediately his leprosy was cleansed”. The abruptness continues through the narrative, and includes even the ending. Before we know it, the film is over. Just like that.

By being unconventional, even contrarian, in the style of his story-telling – above all in avoiding the sentimentalism and dramatic sweep of so many other Jesus movies – Pasolini’s film accomplishes a few things very well. First, it reveals the power of the words themselves. Its minimalism allows the words to take over from spectacle. We are not distracted by cinematic “interpretations” on the part of the director or actors (did he get that scene right? That’s not how I imagined that line!). It focuses our attention on the mystery of each scene and the words that capture it. The words of the Gospel are meant to be prominent: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).

So what do we see and hear in this Gospel? That Jesus’ message is not sugar-coated, but a revolutionary call to conversion and discipleship. His exhortations have an urgency about them while he is brimming with a kind of contemplative intensity. He calls people to repentance and to follow him. He preaches a way of life that is demanding – the Beatitudes are beautiful but not an easy recipe for living. He calls out the Pharisees in no uncertain terms. The Lord essentially presents us with a choice: to follow the way of the world and of its captivity to selfishness, or the way of dying to selfishness, and of following him under his banner of love.

This is the primary invitation this week: having examined our past, it’s time to take stock of our present. What is the fundamental choice that God is offering us? To follow Christ will necessarily involve a transformation of how I have been living before. It will include a commitment of life. Do I desire this? Am I attracted, perhaps despite myself, to follow him in a certain way? Do I have the courage to face this invitation? What are the stakes? What could be the losses? What is to be gained? In short, what is Jesus actually asking of me right now?

These are good questions to bring to our prayer this week. To truly enter into them, we can meditate on certain of his scenes and words. Again, no special effects, no overdramatizing is needed. Just words and faces, which in their understatement, hold and convey something far more powerful, more spiritual, and ultimately, more personal.

Pasolini’s film has a basic, rare quality of elemental Jesus to it. But his brand of neo-realism is not careless. There is studied composition of each shot. There is balance in the beautiful black and white chiaroscuro of each frame. There is variety to his cinematography: kinetic, moving camera, wide establishing shots of each new scene, lots of mediums and close-ups. The music is achingly beautiful and even unexpected a few times. He captures the reality of the holy land, though shot in Italy, with everyday images of donkeys, wells, people in the marketplace. Above all, it’s the beauty of the faces to which he returns, again and again.

Jesus’ ministry is a slow crescendo in tone, from a restraint early on to more animated exhortations by the end. His figure remains just beyond our grasp, and perhaps that’s how it should be. He is always more than we can contain and categorize. But is he attractive to us in some deeper way? Again, to what does he invite? This is the question to ask ourselves post-Pasolini.

Meditation Points

1. Imagine the three Persons of the Trinity looking down upon the earth. See the entire span of the world, with people in it of every race and age: some birthing, living and dying. Some at peace, others at war and killing each other; some are laughing, some crying, some healthy, some sick. See it all, and then listen to it all (use your inner eyes and ears). The Trinity sees the direction that humanity is going, and makes the decision to send the Second Person as a human being. In the fullness of time, they send the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth… What is the state of the world today?

2. Read Luke 2:1-14, the nativity. Make a mental representation of the place and enter the scene. Consider a) the persons involved, each in their turn. Be present personally to them, after the birth of Jesus. b) what each of them are saying; c) what they are doing and why they are doing it. What is God doing in all of this?

3. Pray on John 1:35-39 or Matt 4:18-22, the calling of the apostles. Let the scene come alive and consider each phrase in turn. Don’t force your prayer, but be attentive to the word or image that might strike you in particular.  How might God be calling me to discipleship?

Begin all meditations with the prayer recommended by St. Ignatius. Ask God our Lord for the grace “that all my intentions, actions, and operations may be ordered purely to his service and praise.”

And close with an “Our Father”.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

To the Wonder

By John D. O'Brien, S.J.

Director: Terrence Malick, 112 min., U.SA., 2013.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams


Neil (Affleck) and Marina (Kurylenko) fall in love in Paris and at Mont St. Michel (called by the French “la merveille” –  the wonder). Marina tells Neil that she will go with him wherever he goes, hinting that she would marry him. Although Neil is noncommittal, they return, with Marina’s young daughter Tatiana, to live in Neil’s home in suburban Oklahoma, where tensions arise in their relationship. There we learn that a Spanish-born priest, Father Quintana (Bardem), is struggling with his faith, while continuing his regular rounds of pastoral ministry. Later, Neil encounters a woman from his past (McAdams). All characters, it becomes clear, are looking for love. Some succeed at penetrating love’s veil, while for others it will remain elusive.

Film History

To the Wonder was reviewed by Roger Ebert, the well-known American film reviewer, in which he wrote: “A more conventional film would have assigned a plot to these characters and made their motivations more clear. Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision.” The film had captivated Ebert, who went on to write that Malick’s work had attempted “to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.” This was Ebert’s last review before his death from cancer in 2013.

Spiritual Reflection

A mere two years after his metaphysically audacious and resplendent film The Tree of Life divided viewers but won the Palme D’Or prize at Cannes and new cohorts of admirers, Terrence Malick made another film – only his sixth in 40 years – called To the Wonder. This time the critics were less effusive, as if one Malick picture per decade was quite enough, the investment of existential effort being too costly. Yet this follow-up is no less grand, and although it is without cosmic creation scenes, it manages to do what few other films can do: cause us to meditate on the questions that matter most. Where The Tree of Life asked about the origins of suffering, and the mysterious interplay of nature and grace, To the Wonder focuses on the human experience and the mystery of love – and where we have fallen short of Love’s invitations.

It begins in France, on the sandy tidal plains surrounding Mont St. Michel, where Neil (Ben Affleck) and a young Frenchwoman, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), have fallen in love and cavort in various poses of embrace and shy discovery. This is love in all its newborn glory, as Marina pays homage in one of the many voiceovers:

You brought me out of the shadows …
You lifted me from the ground.
Brought me back to life.

The presence of the divine seems everywhere, drawing them closer to the “Love that loves us” (again, as Marina says). The scenes shift briefly to Paris, and then suddenly to suburban Oklahoma, where Marina and her daughter have gone to live with Neil. There is contrapuntal contrast between the stately beauty of Europe and the bland superstores, backyards and hydro lines of the new world, but in the hands of Malick, there is no judgment. They are merely settings for the drama that plays out in the interiority of his protagonists.

Things start to go badly in America, as something “is missing” in their relationship. Neil begins to have eyes for a former flame Jane (Rachel McAdams). Marina goes back to Paris. Then things sour between Neil and Jane, and Marina returns, this time without her daughter, who we learn has gone to live with her father. This might seem like a soap opera, were it not for the fact that there is little dialogue, and that themes emerge slowly like forms upon a canvas. We are constantly guessing at what is going on, but because it is mostly interior, we learn to comprehend from the interplay of music, facial expressions, and of the sheer physicality of the players, from whom we learn to read the “language of the body”.  This is Malick at his poetic and impressionistic best.

At the centre of this meditative film is the unspoken problem of sin: there is a serpent in the garden of Neil and Marina’s relationship, an obstacle to full communion. Neil cannot ultimately commit, and is reluctant to have children or marry either woman (except a civil marriage to Marina so that she can get a green card). It is not just the absence of commitment, but his failure to realize that love must go beyond the romance and the beauty that so mesmerizes him, and requires something resembling sacrifice in order to have true depth. Marina wants to embrace this dimension, but Neil, for reasons unclear, does not. He remains aloof, as if wanting to keep his options open, or haunted by some past wounds.

Then there is the priest, Fr. Quintana, played by Javier Bardem, who is going through his own struggles in his vocation with the demands of love. He has lost the zest of his more youthful priesthood. In one voiceover he says plaintively:
“Everywhere you are present. And still I can’t see you. You’re within me. Around me. And I have no experience of you. Not as I once did. Why don’t I hold onto what I‘ve found? My heart is cold. Hard.”
He wanders among the people he serves, prisoners, mentally handicapped, the poor, the meth addicts living on the other side of the tracks, struggling to feel something. He is confused about the apparent absence of God in his life. Yet he is able to preach with power, despite himself. He is the reluctant prophet, and an emptied vessel. For instance, he exhorts his congregation about basic Christian truths, like the necessity of making a choice:
We wish to live inside the safety of the laws. We fear to choose. Jesus insists on choice. The one thing he condemns utterly is avoiding the choice. To choose is to commit yourself. And to commit yourself is to run the risk, is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. But Jesus can deal with all of those. Forgiveness he never denies us. The man who makes a mistake can repent. But the man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talent in the earth, with him he can do nothing.
It is a striking call against the temptation to acedia, the vice of indifferentism that shrugs its shoulders at taking the spiritual life seriously, preferring the apparent safety of mediocrity. Many of the desert fathers and mothers saw acedia as one of the more dangerous temptations. Fr. Quintana is probably reminding himself as much as his parishioners that to accept acedia is a fateful decision. Not to choose is actually a choice.

In many ways this is Malick’s most Catholic film. With it he passes from Heideggerian questioning of the mysteries of Being – as in The Tree of Life – to grappling with the concrete reality of the demands of Love, which for humans is always an incarnate Love. The vocation to love, the universal calling of all people, always has a fleshy, particular quality. We are called to love real people in real life in real time, or we are just living in the ether. And in the final analysis, Christ is to be found in the concrete demands of love.

The way out of their miasma is strongly hinted at, as the film becomes profoundly confessional -- in all the senses. To the strains of Henrik Gorecki’s Symphony #3 (“Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”), Neil bends down on one knee, kisses Marina’s hand and asks for forgiveness. Marina literally goes to confession in another scene, and receives the body and blood of Christ. Fr. Quintana's confession takes the form of a "profession", a declaration of his belief. The human, which has never been so tenderly rendered by Malick, and the divine, come together in a sacramental dialogue and embrace. But even their confessional acts are imperfect, which is why the need for the grace of forgiveness remains constant in their lives.

Amidst the many poetic ruminations of the characters, is a prayer voiced by Fr. Quintana at the end of a climactic sequence of spiritual epiphany. It’s one that had this writer close to tears. Viewers may not know this, but it is both the Lorica or Breastplate of St. Patrick (“Christ before me, Christ behind me…”) and then becomes a prayer that was actually adapted from a prayer written by Cardinal Newman:

Flood our souls with your spirit and life so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of yours. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.

It’s a prayer that acknowledges our creaturely dependence on God. It is, therefore, a humble prayer. It’s the same prayer recited daily my Mother Teresa’s sisters. It also expresses the yearning to see the Beauty, ever ancient, ever new, which will ultimately fulfill the hunger of our souls. It’s what Neil and Marina are ultimately looking for.

Meditation Points 

In the “first week” of the Spiritual Exercises, we ask God to “transform what was deformed”, that is, to seek to comprehend the unconditional love of God, and recognize our failure to respond to it. The grace to pray for, then, is knowledge of my relationship with God and sorrow for my sins – which are always a turning from God. Each point can be prayed on a separate day.

Read Genesis 2:15-3:25, the account of Adam and Eve in the garden. What was God’s original plan? What did our first parents do? Reflect on my own life and see parallel ways in which I have or have not responded to God’s plan.

Read I Cor 13:1-7 on in what consists love. Where have I experienced the freedom of this kind of love in my life? How have I lived or not lived my vocation to love?

Read Luke 15:11-32, the account of the Prodigal Son. How have I lived or not lived my vocation to sonship or daughtership of God? What is the father’s reaction to son’s return?

Begin all meditations this week with the Newman prayer cited above & close with an Our Father.