Remembering the ‘Christmas Truce’

That the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.
~ Pope Benedict XV

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Just What the Doctor Ordered: The Physic of Tears

Crying makes us feel better, even when a problem persists.
~ Judith Orloff, M.D.

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Of Memory, Metanoia, and Manslaughter

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

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A French Saint for Memorial Day

I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.
~ Dwight D. Eisenhower

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’71: The Best Violent Movie You’ve Never Seen


We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it.
~ C.S. Lewis

The whole purpose of this post is to prompt you to watch ’71 (2015), because I’m guessing you’ve never seen it. Heck, I’ll wager you’ve never even heard of it.

That’s no surprise, because it was a flash in the pan when it came out a few years ago. I don’t remember it ever showing up at the theaters around here, and, even if it had, I would’ve given it a pass. To begin with, the title itself is a marketing disaster. “1971?” I asked myself when I saw it come up in the Redbox queue last year. “What, a movie about hippies?” I was standing outside our Walgreens, on the prowl for a flick to watch with my teenage son. Since nothing else was even remotely appealing, I read the description of ’71 and decided to give it a shot.

It turned out to be a riveting experience – for both of us. Directed by Yann Demange, ’71 is the story of a young, naïve British recruit, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), whose regiment is assigned to provide security in Belfast during The Troubles. After a disastrous confrontation with rioting Irish nationalists and IRA sympathizers, the soldier gets separated from his unit and is effectively abandoned in a staunchly Catholic district. Forced to fend for himself, Hook relies on his wits and the good will of those he encounters to survive a night in enemy territory and make his way back to safety.

’71 is a whirlwind from beginning to end – we were rapt throughout: the action is constant; the violence (rarely gratuitous), abundant; the characters, three-dimensional and sympathetic – even the bad guys (mostly). In addition, the exquisite soundtrack by David Holmes, shifting between calm guitar and rumbling drums, subtly propels the action forward – very reminiscent of the pulsating Tangerine Dream soundtrack in Sorcerer (1977).

And while the story is hard to follow, there are plenty enough threads to keep you engaged. It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on most the time – who’s on which side, who are the good guys, who are the bad – but there’s underlying urgency and pounding action that pins you down and demands your attention, beyond even the thrilling survival narrative of Private Hook. The urgency stems in large part from the confusion. In fact, I’d say the confusion is practically a lead character unto itself, and it’s introduced at the very beginning of the film.

As Hook and his comrades are called to attention, a commanding officer announces that they won’t be deployed to Germany as planned. “Because of the deteriorating security situation in Belfast, your regiment is now being deployed there on an emergency basis…. I take it you all know where Belfast is? Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom. Here. You are not leaving this country.” The disturbing reality of the Irish civil war was that the combatants not only professed the same creedal faith, but also the same nationality and/or heritage. It was worse than World War I, where Christians fought Christians across the trenches – French Catholics and Anglican Brits against Christian Germans of all stripes. The unraveling of the WWI Christmas Truce depicted in the film Joyeaux Noël (2005) was painful enough to watch, but not nearly as painful as seeing Irish Christians rip each other apart in ’71.

It’s also painful to watch the film’s depiction of how young Irishmen were conditioned and seduced into killing. Without giving away too much, one character in particular is a case study in homicidal inducement. He resists, despite all the encouragement from his elders to give way and get over the hump of the first kill. He hesitates, he stalls, a sign that he hasn’t completely lost touch with that inner voice telling him that murder is always, always wrong. At that point, it’s hard to tell how much of his reluctance to shoot is rooted in his Christian upbringing, no matter how nominal, and how much of it is some fundamental instinct against taking another human being’s life.

That there is such an instinct is unquestionable. “The history of warfare can be seen as a history of increasingly more effective mechanisms for enabling and conditioning men to overcome their innate resistance to killing their fellow human beings.” So writes West Point professor Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1995). Grossman details the normalizing process that modern military machines utilize to suppress that resistance in men and women, and optimize both their willingness to kill and their efficiency in doing so. ’71 is practically a cinematic adaptation of Grossman’s Kübler-Ross-like stages of how we accustom ourselves to human slaughter. “The basic response stages to killing in combat are concern about killing, the actual kill, exhilaration, remorse, and rationalization and acceptance.” Prodding future combatants toward that rationalization and acceptance seems to be standard operating procedure for all kinds of armed organizations. Conscience, it seems, and morality have no place.

At the conclusion of the film, I shuddered and looked over at my son. He’s turning 18 next year, and will have to cope with signing up for the draft and all that entails. Maybe it was unnecessary, but I felt compelled to apologize to him for a world in which violence has become the default response to so many problems. In addition, I made a mental note to call my friend Shawn at Catholic Peace Fellowship to get him connected with Cris – to set up a meeting for the two of them to discuss what it means to sign on the dotted line with Selective Service.

Also, I decided to write this post to urge people to watch this underrated and neglected film – and watch it with your teens, especially your sons. As bleak as it is, ’71 contains a powerful undercurrent of confidence in our essential humaneness. “It is there,” Grossman insists, “it is strong, and it gives us cause to believe that there just may be hope for mankind after all.”

On Fatherhood, Selective Service, and a Space for Nonviolence


There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war—at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.
 ~ Daniel J. Berrigan, S.J.

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Of the Advent Swell and the Pregnant Pause

“The discovery of God present in the soul
is one of the most momentous in the soul’s spiritual career.”
~ Dom Hubert Van Zeller

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Of Rip Currents, Our Lady, and a Crippled Troubadour


Some try to run away from all temptations, and still they go on falling into sin. Flight alone will not conquer all temptations.
~ Fr. Anthony Paone, S.J.

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On Cultivating Patient Irrelevance: The Benedict Option 2.0


“The monks waited.”
~ Walter M. Miller, Jr.

It seems that I’m more out of touch than even my teens realize. Here’s how I know.

The Wall Street Journal’s “House of Worship” column appears every Friday, and I always make a beeline for it. For someone interested in religious matters – as I am – it’s a feature that never fails to inform and enlighten. Sometimes theology and politics, sometimes spirituality and culture; Christianity one week, Islam or Judaism the next, and occasionally Buddhism, Hinduism, and other world religions – you never know what will be there, but it’s always a fruitful, provocative read.

This past Friday was no exception. Evangelical author David Skeel’s concise summary of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” and the controversy it has lately engendered was elucidating, but, for me, a revelation – how could I have missed this? Apparently, this is a big deal on the web, but I don’t recall encountering it. In fact, my first thought as I read Skeel’s article was that he must be referring to retired Pope Benedict XVI – the “option” part was a mystery.

Obviously, I’m clueless, for Dreher’s idea has been around at least since 2013 when he floated it in an American Conservative article. After a brief review of the Benedictine history of tactical disengagement and cultural preservation, Dreher asked,

Is there a lesson here for Christians? Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?

That’s the gist of Dreher’s proposal, and he’s gone on to write about it extensively on his blog and elsewhere. Moreover, plenty of others have commented on, expanded, and/or criticized Dreher’s scheme, and yet I’m just now running across the whole business – and this pleases me, you see. I suppose I take it as a sign that I’ve naturally gravitated to a certain degree of disengagement myself, even without Dreher’s recommendation.

That might sound like a backhanded compliment, so let me hasten to add that the basic Benedict Option thesis definitely resonates with me, especially when it comes to Dreher’s prognosis of our crumbling civilization. “We are fighting a losing game,” Dreher declared in a recent interview. “This is not our culture anymore. Maybe it never was our real home, but we have got to prepare ourselves and our families and our churches through intentional living, through disciplined living, and through an awareness of the cultural moment to deal with perhaps even persecution.” Yes, yes, and yes, I say, hear hear!

Yet, really, this is old news, and that’s my only complaint about Dreher’s suggestions. For example, he recommended in that interview that Christians “stay involved in the outside world, but let’s also do a strategic retreat” – join the club! Any Catholic who has paid the price of taking Humanae Vitae seriously already has scads of strategic-retreat experience, and that’s only the beginning.

In the interests of expanding the applicability of the Benedict Option for those who’ve already been fighting the good fight for a while – decades for some, even generations – I’d like to attempt a slightly different spin on the idea. Dreher acknowledges that the whole concept occurred to him after reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, and he included a paraphrase of one particular passage from that 1981 book in that recent interview:

MacIntyre says, “We’re waiting for a new and doubtless very different Saint Benedict to bring those who want to live the moral life together in community to survive through this current darkness.”

In a prologue for a new edition of After Virtue published in 2007, MacIntyre himself commented on that passage: “So it was twenty-six years ago, so it is still.”

So, while we’re waiting, let’s look to some other saintly Benedicts from the past that might help orient us to the resurgent Christian culture that a future Saint Benedict will presumably usher in.

  1. BENEDICT THE MOOR (1524-1589): Despite his first name, St. Benedict the Moor was a Franciscan, and his title derived from his African heritage, not his religious background. His parents were slaves in Italy, although Benedict won his freedom by his late teens. Known for his piety and intense prayer life, Benedict held various leadership positions in his order, but his preference was always to return to the kitchen where he’d long served as a cook. After a lifetime of service – including enduring the mockery of those who derided him for his skin color and lowly family background – he begged to be returned to his pots and pans that he might live out the rest of his life in obscure and humble service.
    *BENEDICT OPTION PRINCIPLE #1: In a world given over to acquisition and status, strive for downward mobility.
  1. BENEDICT JOSEPH LABRE (1748-1783): This lowly son of a Belgian shopkeeper desired nothing else than a monastic vocation. His youth held him off at first, but later his sickly constitution and personality quirks made his admission to any religious community an unlikely prospect. Consequently, St. Benedict Joseph took to the road, and he became a freelance mendicant, ever on the move, ever homeless, and ever given over to a rich life of deep prayer. He rarely bathed, dressed in rags, and begged alms – never keeping more than he needed for a day, giving away any surplus to his fellow beggars. The end of his life was spent primarily in Rome where he made the rounds of the various pilgrim churches there, often sleeping in the shadows of the Colosseum.
    *BENEDICT OPTION PRINCIPLE #2: In a culture obsessed with image and aggrandizement, have a healthy disregard for self.
  1. BENEDICT XV (1854-1922): A relatively overlooked heir of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XV is an exemplar of attempting the good despite overwhelming odds. Shortly before Benedict’s election, World War I had erupted, and the new pontiff made every effort to alleviate the ensuing wide scale human misery as well as bring a halt to total war. In 1917, Pope Benedict sent a seven-point plea for peace to all the nations involved in the conflict. This entreaty was met with polite demurrals that essentially translated into a continental and very public rebuke. “The debacle of this peace effort,” writes W.H. Peters, “was perhaps the greatest disappointment that Benedict XV suffered during his pontificate.” Nevertheless, the Holy Father never gave up on his vision of a reunited Europe, and at the war’s conclusion, he issued his encyclical Pacem Dei Munus Pulcherrimum“On Peace and Christian Reconciliation.”
    *BENEDICT OPTION PRINCIPLE #3: In a society fixated on security and the elimination of enemies no matter the cost, remain steadfast in a fundamental peace orientation.

That last principle – the peace-orientation principle – is an especially important one. We face growing violence and threats of violence these days, both here at home and from abroad. Nevertheless, our faith demands that we stand with Benedict XV, as well as John Paul II and Pope Francis, in our insistence that any war or potentially lethal violence carried out in our names must be an absolute last resort – and that’s simply not the case today. Thus, it’s all the more disturbing when we read that Dreher nimbly lumps together “we conservatives” with “we Christians.” To the extent that “conservative” is associated with support for targeted drone killings, “acceptable” collateral damage, and a constant national war posture, then political conservatism is something the Benedict Option ought to shun just as much as political, pro-abortion liberalism.

Putting aside political labels in an age of extreme partisanship is a good way to hemorrhage membership. No matter. It has never been about numbers anyway. In that regard, it’s helpful to turn to one more Benedict – the one I mistakenly called to mind when reading Skeel’s article the other day: Pope Emeretus Benedict XVI. Here’s what Pope Benedict had to say about the “remnant” Church when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges.

But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church…. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.

That’s a vision that encapsulates the principles of the other three Benedicts listed above – downward mobility, disregard for self, and peace – with the added dimension of endurance. The real Benedict Option, in other words, is simply waiting out the storm, be it cultural, moral, political, or otherwise. In a word, it’s persistence – a refusal to give in to the prevailing anti-Church, come what may.

Intentional communities subsisting on the edges of society might be part of that, but they aren’t necessary. However, I certainly agree with Skeel when he recommends “perhaps turning off the TV more often.” If nothing else, that’s a good place to start.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Cumulative Effect of Sub-Violent Events

Concussions and football are in the news again. Actually, they’ve been in the news pretty much continually lately, with revelations and horror stories about football and brain injuries popping up at every turn.

This week, it’s the big documentary appearing on PBS that seems to be dropping the hammer on the NFL, and what the organization may or may not have known about the real risks of professional football when it comes to repeated knocks to the head.

football1I have a boy playing football these days, and I’d be loath to yank him out, even after hearing some of the brain injury stories here and there. He’s in 8th-grade, and sure there’s a risk, but at that level, the chances of some kind of life-altering brain slam are slim. Cris loves the game and the camaraderie, and this year he’s playing both sides of the ball, offense and defense, every weekend. That means he’s getting banged up a bunch, but it’s all part of the action and the thrill, right? As long as he doesn’t snap his spine or black out completely, it’s just routine collateral damage, right?

That’s what I thought, but then I heard a segment on on Sound Medicine about that new documentary League of DenialProducer Michael Kirk made reference to the long-term consequences of “repeated sub-concussive effects,” especially for kids who start playing football at very young ages. This was a major point brought up in a PBS Newshour report which included an interview with ESPN writer and League of Denial investigator, Mark Fainaru-Wada:

The issue with football is not necessarily these big hits that we see all the time shown on highlight, but rather the repetitive nature of playing the game, the sub-concussive blows that happen everyday at the line of scrimmage.

And whether you can mitigate those out of the game or not remains to be seen, and whether you would want to, frankly, remains to be seen. It’s a brutal, violent sport, but very popular, obviously. I love it. My brother, who co-authored the book with me, we both love the sport. And, obviously, millions of people love it.

Indeed, we love it, and not despite it’s violence—it’s “danger” and “gladiatorial” character in the words of Michael Kirk—but because of it. In fact, would there be much left to football if we eliminated those factors? Hard to know. Should I reconsider letting my son play now, or give some serious thought to whether he should play in high school? I don’t know.

But I digress. What really caught my attention and imagination in these reports was the idea of sub-concussive events and their cumulative impact. Could it be that something similar has gone on in our culture with regards to our acceptance of killing as a way of life?

This came to mind as I read through a WSJ story about Ross Ulbricht, the creator and driving force behind the Silk Road website, now shut down by the feds. Silk Road dealt in the shady side of the internet, brokering transactions off the legal radar, especially illicit drugs. It sounds like Ross was a pretty smart guy, but he got tangled up with some nasty business, and it led him down a dark, dangerous path.

[Ulbricht] allegedly agreed to pay $80,000 to a Silk Road customer—an undercover federal agent—to have the associate tortured and killed, according to a federal indictment.

When the undercover agent sent Mr. Ulbricht doctored photos of the victim post-torture and beat up, but not dead, Mr. Ulbricht allegedly responded that he was “a little disturbed, but I’m OK,” and “I’m new to this kind of thing is all,” according to the indictment.

Right. New to this kind of thing—this kind of “thing” being torture and murder. How did Ulbrict get to the place where he’d even consider dabbling in that kind of thing? And, come to think of it, how about those kids in Texas who made their headline splash back in August when they shot and killed the Australian exchange student out of sheer boredom?

Now, you can’t tell me that Ulbricht and those Texas teens were genetically programmed for that kind of senseless violence, and it doesn’t sound like they had particularly jarring childhoods or any significant violent events in their personal histories. Instead, I’d be willing to bet that their embrace of wanton amorality and cruelty came after a gradual acclimation that involved repeated exposures to miniaturized, second-hand violence in the form of entertainment and news—almost like repeated sub-concussive hits to the soul that result in a broken moral compass.water_drip

It’s not any single massive assault, but rather a lifetime of little assaults via television and film, internet and gaming, not to mention the broader society’s easy acceptance of abortion on demand, terminal dehydration of the frail and failing, and drone-mediated targeted killings with associated “collateral damage.” If you grow up with an understanding that such things are commonplace and normal, then is it such a leap that you’d have your business foes tortured and snuffed out? That you’d take potshots off your porch at joggers just for grins?

Debt ceiling? Healthcare reform? I’d say we’ve got even more pressing matters to address. Way more pressing.

And could it be that we have to start on the gridiron itself? Perhaps. Football is, after all, a “brutal, violent sport,” as Fainaru-Wada put it—even “gladiatorial” according to Michael Kirk.

Maybe sub-concussive effects aren’t the only cumulative dangers we’re subjecting our young players to.

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