Leaning on Green: Of Ice Skating, Down Syndrome, and Ordinary Time

Brave men are vertebrates; they have their softness on the surface and their toughness in the middle.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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Shopping for a Terminal Address

It is only Catholicism that would ever allow the like of me
to hope some day to be there.
 ~ Myles Connolly

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Bridgebuilding, Barriers, and Fatherhood: St. Bénézet as Patron for Dads

In the breaking of bridges is the end of the world.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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Three Quick Media Takes: Blade Runner, Barchester, and Father Brown

Other than the alliteration, these brief glances at three video departures from earlier works – one a movie sequel, the other two literary TV adaptations – may not seem to have much in common: sci-fi pscyhothriller, drawing-room character study, and Agatha Christie in a Roman collar. Perhaps – let’s see.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

This worthy sequel is now out on DVD, and it prompts me to record some thoughts I had when I saw it in the theater last summer.

The original Blade Runner (1982), starring a very young Harrison Ford, was one of those films that you see as a kid and keep coming back to (either in your mind or on the screen or both) for the rest of your life. At least that was true for meand is now, despite the fact that, once I became a Catholic, I shunned it as a film that the USCCB movie rating service deemed “morally objectionable.” I couldn’t help talking about it with my older children, and I urged them to see it someday – on their own, if they chose, and away from our home.

Anyway, the new BR, starring Ryan Gosling this time, is rated a relatively tame L (limited adult audience), so I gladly went to check it out. Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting to be wowed, but, like Star Wars fans who go see every new installment regardless of quality, I felt compelled to go out of a sense of loyalty to the original.

And you know what? I liked it more than I thought I would – maybe a 3.5 stars out of 5. The marketing hype would lead to believe that you don’t need to see its predecessor in order to enjoy it, but you really should. Just keep in mind that USCCB “O” rating if you do so – caveat emptor.

Even if you don’t, however, BR2049 is definitely worth a viewing. There’s a lot of violence and more than a few racy bits, but there’s plenty of visual and auditory spectacle that will keep you enthralled. Plus, Ford shows up reprising his role as blade runner Rick Deckard thirty years later – which was alone worth the price of the ticket.

But there’s also some substantial musing in this film, and much of it revolves around what it means to be human – just like in the first BR. To begin with, there’s an implicit critique of the reproductive technologies that have shifted our assumptions about what it means to beget. We used to associate baby-making with love-making, but now it’s often framed in manufacturing terms: product of conception, desired traits, sex selection. It makes you squirm a bit, much like Gattaca did back in 1997. Only now the squirming is considerably more pronounced because the Gattaca future of babies made-to-order has become a reality.

The film also raises questions about human identity beyond mere biological heritage. Is it wonder that separates us from beasts? Compassion? As I sat in the theater, I couldn’t help thinking about Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (1987) and its powerful images of angels trying to become men. Why would an angel want to become one of us? The same question could be asked of a replicant – the BR equivalent of an android – and it’s worth asking of ourselves. If we had a choice, would we choose to be human? Would we accept the inevitable suffering and pain and death? Would we embrace lives of chaos and paradox that can’t ultimately be filtered and managed, despite modernity’s technological illusions that tell us otherwise?

Of course, because it’s real, and we all have an innate hunger for reality. It’s put there by God, and it can only be satisfied by God – like St. Augustine’s “our heart is restless until it rests in you” (CCC 30). This is in direct contradiction to the Supreme Court’s summing-up of the Zeitgeist in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) – to wit: we can all make up our own reality to order, just like we do with babies. Nonsense.

The Barchester Chronicles (BBC, 1982- )

Part of that reality that we have to embrace – and that modernity finds so distasteful – is that we’re all sinners in need of grace, and it’s a theme that’s explored in a profoundly subtle way in Anthony Trollope’s delectable Barchester novels. I only started reading Trollope recently, although a friend had long ago recommended him to me. What a shame that it took me so long to listen to her! Like a male counterpart to Jane Austen, Trollope closely examines – almost dissects – the intricate, intimate foibles and strivings, vices and virtues, of human experience in a tightly circumscribed frame of reference: nineteenth-century English society and the peculiar web of relations between established Church clergy (read: Anglican) and their families and social circles. Lots of politics and melodrama with a delicate overlay of religion – wonderful!

Rev. Septimus Harding, an aging, widowed, cello-playing cleric, is the hero and a fantastic, very human character – one who lives out on the page the tension at Christianity’s core: That it is simultaneously a set of religious assertions affirmed (creedal truths and dogma) and a way of life aspired to (always imperfectly, alas), Mr. Harding memorably embodies the undeniable fact, witnessed in history and borne out in personal experience, that divine grace and constant effort are required to align the two in our lives. At the end of the exquisite BBC Barchester mini-series, the otherwise abrasive Dr. Grantly, the husband of Harding’s elder daughter, has the good sense to toast his father-in-law’s example:

He is not a hero, not a man that is widely talked about, not a man who should be toasted at public dinners, not a man who should be spoken of with conventional absurdity as ‘the perfect divine.’ He’s simply a good man, without guile, believing humbly in the religion he has striven to teach, and guided by the precepts he has striven to learn.

The exquisite BBC production covers the first two Barchester novels, The Warden (1855) and Barchester Towers (1857), and it captures well the wide moral range of Trollope’s characters on a scale of mostly bad to good. Harding is definitely at the latter end, and the oily Obadiah Slope anchors the other. Played by Alan Rickman – Harry Potter’s Snape – Slope is underhanded, selfish, and altogether repulsive – breathtakingly so. Barchester’s bishop, Dr. Proudie, on the other hand, is a moral cipher, and his wife (remember, these are Anglicans) rules the ecclesiastical and domestic roost – two more odious characters.

But for my money, the most conniving and hateful character in the Barchester universe that I’ve encountered so far (I haven’t read through the whole series yet) is the unforgettable Senora Neroni, daughter of a worldly clergyman and the estranged wife of an Italian dandy. She is crippled due to past domestic abuse, and yet manages to implement her nefarious schemes from her permanently supine position. She flirts and seduces for sport, exposing hypocrisy and causing mayhem in Barchester’s circles for no other purpose than her own amusement – to see what lengths fools will go to, especially men.

Still, she redeems herself by trying to bring together a pair of star-crossed lovers – Mr. Harding’s daughter, Eleanor, a widowed mother, and the Rev. Arabin, a bachelor Oxford don. Neroni simultaneously crushes Mr. Slope, who sought Eleanor’s hand only for her fortune, and brings about the pairing of Eleanor and Arabin through her artful interventions. It’s a singularly meritorious and selfless act of goodness – enough perhaps to save her soul. As staged in the BBC production, it’s a brilliant snapshot of an onion being extended from heaven, in the imagery of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and a recalcitrant sinner laying hold of it. It brought tears to my eyes, and thinking of it now gives me resurgent hope for my own salvation.

Father Brown (BBC, 2013- )

Another recent BBC discovery for us is their excellent adaptation of Chesterton’s Father Brown mystery stories. I’d purchased Season One long ago at a library sale, but we never really got around to watching them. A week or so ago, I happened upon Season Five on the library’s “New” shelf, and brought it home on a lark.

Superb! We dived into it, and (with some reservations) we found it to be engaging entertainment for the whole family, as well as eminently thoughtful and even challenging.

If you’re familiar with GKC’s Fr. Brown, you know that he based the character on an actual Yorkshire priest that shepherded him into the Church in 1922. The literary version of that wise cleric is the soul of pastoral patience and priestly wisdom, which he extends to the frequent opportunities providence sends his way to solve criminal conundrums.

A friend recently posted something about Fr. Mulcahy (William Christopher), a regular character in the long-running series, M*A*S*H, and another edifying television depiction of the priesthood. I’d say the BBC’s updated (in character and time period) Fr. Brown goes Fr. Mulcahy one better. He’s not a saint yet, and his demonstrable pre-conciliar aggiornamento is a bit anachronistic, but he nonetheless captures so much of what we all so greatly treasure in our favorite priests. Like Mulcahy, the BBC Brown (played by Mark Williams, another Harry Potter standout) exhibits a healthy ecumenism, and even some interfaith amiability. Yet, while he studiously avoids bombast and rigid moralism, constantly hedging his many assertions and opinions, he is crystal clear with regards to dogma and faith. That’s where he seems to surpass the M*A*S*H chaplain, for the BBC’s Fr. Brown routinely references his first priority of saving souls – yes, he uses the words “souls” and “saving souls” right there on British TV! – and yet he never carries it out in a highhanded way. He invites; sometimes he cajoles, but never pressures; he waits; he prays.

Following an episode in which Brown has dealings with an atheist, my daughter Cecilia commented on Brown’s generosity of spirit. “Come talk to me,” Father Brown had told the man. “I won’t try to convert you.” This reminded Cece of something she really appreciates about our Faith. “Catholics don’t pressure people,” she said. “They just live it as best they can.”

Just so. As they used to say during World War II, carry on. Yes, indeed, with God’s grace and best you can, carry on.
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Of Sports Radio, Squabbles, and Signs of Life

Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world.
~ Walker Percy

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The Blessing of Marital Monotony

The book of love is long and boring.
~ Stephin Merritt

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Nailed: The Outrage and Consolation of a Helpless God

If Christ was not of the very substance of omnipotence,
if becomes relatively pointless to point to the paradox of his impotence.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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Always Watching: Of Candles, Commands, and “The Joy of Love”

hemessen4

A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.
~ Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

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Waiting to Convert

God-Haunted Lunatic

742px-V&A_-_Raphael,_The_Miraculous_Draught_of_Fishes_(1515)

St. Ambrose says of the two conversions that, in the Church, “there are water and tears: the water of Baptism and the tears of repentance” (CCC 1429).

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Why I Remain a Catholic

“Something had given him leave to live in the present.”
~ Walker Percy

A friend of mine sent me an email with this subject line: “A challenge for your blogging….” She included Elizabeth Scalia’s invitation to Catholics everywhere in the internet cosmos to write about “Why Do YOU Remain a Catholic” – an invitation itself prompted by the recent Pew Research report on the statistical collapse of the American Church.

scalia

Elizabeth Scalia, “The Anchoress” (Patheos)

That report, with its grim portrayal of the Church’s retention record, already prompted me to write a bit about Catholic parenting and keeping our kids connected to the Faith. However, I’ll take Scalia’s proposition (and my friend’s email) as an excuse to add some additional, more personal thoughts.

So, why do I remain a Catholic? For me, the question might as well be, “Why do you keep breathing?” I can’t imagine not being a Catholic – there’s no alternative. Catholicism informs everything I think and say and do, and so the very concept of giving it up is unfathomable.

Curiously, this is not the case with regards to Christianity in general. I grew up in an Evangelical tradition, my beloved siblings and their families remain so, and I have great respect for my Protestant friends and colleagues. In fact, I not only admire their strong faith and piety, but I also strive to emulate their example. However, for me, Christianity is Catholicism – there’s no going back. Samuel Johnson (himself an Anglican) put it this way:

A man who is converted from Protestantism to Popery, may be sincere: he parts with nothing: he is only superadding to what he already had. But a convert from Popery to Protestantism, gives up so much of what he had held as sacred as anything that he retains: there is so much laceration of mind in such a conversion, that it can hardly be sincere and lasting.

gk_chesterton_smoking2

G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936)

That’s one of the quirky little secrets of Catholicism: It’s not just another denomination. It really does claim to be the true Church, and hence, the truth. Period. “The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic,’” wrote G.K. Chesterton, “is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.” The funny thing is that conviction regarding the Church’s truth claims is not always the main motivating factor for conversion. For some converts, it might’ve been an attraction to liturgy; for others, it might’ve been marriage to a Catholic – there are myriad reasons to “pope,” all of them good enough. God will use whatever means he can to get us attached to his family, and then he’ll bring us along, sanctifying us one way or another, sometimes despite our objections and resistance. He’s sneaky that way.

However, at some point along the sainthood trail, the outlandish truth of Catholicism becomes virtually undeniable. It sounds crazy, I know, but at some point, we start to take it for granted that Catholicism simply comports with the way things are (truth) and, consequently, it’s the only reliable means of bringing about the way things ought to be (beatitude). Orthodoxy, orthopraxy; what is affirmed and what is aspired to – however it’s parsed, it’s a bulwark that stands between the faithful and the temptations of suicidal oblivion. It keeps us tethered to earth and directs our eyes to heaven. Above all, it gives us reason to hope: that our past may be redeemed, that our future might be glorious, and that our present…

Ah, the present. It’s so thick, so fraught with edges and endings, uncertainties and contingencies, yet Catholicism takes it all into account. Let’s see, how can I…

Well, here, let me paint a picture. Here’s how I envision Catholic Faith impinging on the present.
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“YOU DOING ALRIGHT?”
A Comedy in Three Acts

CAST OF CHARACTERS:

  • RICK – Apprentice husband, father, Catholic
  • BRENDAN – Hardware-store clerk
  • DR. OFFERLE – Optometrist
  • CHORUS
    • THOMAS MERTON, OCSO – Monk
    • HUBERT VAN ZELLER, OSB – Monk

ACT 1

At RISE:

(It’s Sunday afternoon at Menard’s. There is bustle and activity in the plumbing section, customers browsing for parts and tools. CHORUS is visible stage left. RICK holds a discount toilet seat, but appears stalled, adrift – no longer shopping nor moving in the direction of the check-out lanes. He seems poised to ask a question, and BRENDAN, alert and solicitous, approaches.)

BRENDAN

You doing alright?

RICK

Uh…

(RICK stares blankly at BRENDAN for a moment. Brendan freezes; Rick lapses into a reverie and addresses the audience, gesticulating animatedly; MERTON interjects throughout.)

Am I doing alright? No, I’m not doing alright.

MERTON

“I have no idea where I am going.”

RICK

In fact, I’m doing lousy, wondering how I landed here, shopping for plumbing fixtures while my children are growing up at breakneck speed – another one off to college next fall! – and there’s no way I can undo all the ways I’ve failed them, and failed my wife, plus my students, my friends, not to mention my God.

Thomas-Merton

Thomas Merton, OCSO (1915-1968)

MERTON

“I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.”

RICK

My God (hands extended, arms upraised), I’ve been a Catholic for decades – over half my life now! Yet I’m barely past the starting gate – I’m just getting going! Mass and sacraments, prayers and spiritual reading, solid spiritual counsel and the best theological formation out there – for what? Scraping by, still scraping by, and there’s no second wind unless you’ve exhausted your first wind. I’m jogging here, just ambling along – not even! The race has started, and I’m just getting the shoes on.

MERTON

“Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.”

RICK

So, am I doing alright? (pause, then addressing the frozen BRENDAN) Are you serious?

(Lights fade. End of ACT 1.)

ACT 2

(Lights fade in. Flashback several days. Eye doctor’s examination room – Snellen chart on the wall, typical equipment on counter and attached to wall. RICK reclines in the patient’s chair; OFFERLE sits on a stool directly in front of Rick, peering through an ophthalmoscope.)

OFFERLE

It’s bright outside. OK if I dilate your eyes?

RICK

Sure (leans back as OFFERLE instills eye drops). I already have sunglasses with me. (pause) You’ll be happy to know I’ve been using them pretty regularly since last time – whenever I’m out in the sun. They are a bit nerdy. (pause) My son calls them “cataract glasses.”

OFFERLE

That’s good (laughs) – he’s right! – and it’ll help. (Further examination via the ophthalmoscope.) Of course, some vision change is unavoidable. (pause) Do you squint to read?

RICK

No – not usually…. (raises eyebrows) presbyopia?

OFFERLE

Right – you can expect it. You’ll have to squint to read or hold books and newspapers away from you further and further. It’s a natural part of aging, but it’s manageable. (pause) For now, though, (pulling away ophthalmoscope) I don’t see any problems.

(OFFERLE freezes; VAN ZELLER, stage left, interjects; RICK turns to listen to him.)

VAN ZELLER

vanzeller

Dom Hubert van Zeller (1905–1984)

“As long as we are only tamed by years and not tired by them we have no cause to worry. Nor should we suffer ourselves to be unduly tamed. Looking wide-eyed at life we shall find much that will create in us that blessed sense of wonder – so much indeed that there will be no room in us for preoccupation with the crooked and the wrong.”

OFFERLE

(unfreezes) I’m leaving your prescription the same. (big smile) In fact, I don’t think you need to come back for another two years. That’s good, isn’t it?

(Lights fade. End of ACT 2.)

ACT 3

(Lights fade in, revealing the previous frozen scene in the Menard’s plumbing aisle. BRENDAN is in a solicitous posture; CHORUS is visible stage left; RICK addresses the audience; MERTON interjects throughout.)

RICK

God forgive me for my failures, my weaknesses, my petty selfishness and deceit. I love you, God – at least I think I do – but I keep messing up, over and over!

MERTON

“I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

RICK

Give me your strength, your grace, your life, God. Help me keep going.

MERTON

“I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.”

RICK

Help my kids, my wife. Help me be a better husband and father, a better teacher, a better worker, a better friend. Help me, God, help me! I don’t even know how to ask you to help me!

MERTON

“Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

(Customers and BRENDAN unfreeze; RICK addresses Brendan.)

RICK

Yeah, (pause)… I’m alright.

(Lights dim. CURTAIN.)

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You see, the present is “an adventure,” Van Zeller reminds us, and “there are discoveries to be made round every corner” – tumult and opportunity, crisis and resolution, sin and salvation around every corner! We tend to lose that perspective as we get older, but Catholicism trumpets it perpetually and makes it happen. With faith, everything can be an adventure, every undertaking a quest – even shopping in the hardware store, even getting a check-up. Creation is a sacrament, people are Jesus, and everything points to God – no escape, but why would we want to escape?

jrrt

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

That question is at the heart of Gandalf’s first encounter with Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Bilbo is relaxing and showing off with his pipe smoke. “Very pretty!” said Gandalf. “But I have no time to blow smoke-rings this morning. I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.” He’s perplexed: Why is it so difficult? Sure, there’s danger and death and no guarantees, but, c’mon, it’s an adventure! How can we say no?

Every time we Catholics go to Mass, every time we receive the sacraments or pray, we’re invited to an adventure and we take the risk of becoming saints – incredible. Will we agree? Will we go? What will happen?!

I think that’s a show worth sticking around for.
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A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

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