Category Archives: Theater

A Christmas Carol & Detachment

A Christmas Carol

I recently attended a live performance of the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. The cast did an excellent job portraying the well-known tale in a new and creative way while remaining diligently faithful to the book. This fidelity to the authentic work allowed for the original themes, the ones that Dickens intended to highlight, to shine through to the audience.

Dickens wrote the original story in his early 30’s when he was beginning to fade from the limelight. Besides wanting to be popular again, he sought to highlight the utilitarianism and injustice involved in the mistreatment of workers and their families that occurred during the Industrial Revolution in London.  This included the horrors of child labor, the innocent victims of which Dickens desired to catechize through his engaging story.

The rich narrative  of A Christmas Carol is multifaceted, with many themes for one to touch on as a starting point for great philosophical and theological discussions. The one I found most profound and edifying is the theme of Scrooge’s transformation from a money-grubbing crank to a generous and spiritual philanthropist. This manifests the truth that misery comes from selfishness and life-giving joy will spring forth from selflessness.

At the beginning of the story, Scrooge was beyond tolerable with his stingy intentions of saving as best he could down to the last penny, even at the expense and health of his workers. This misdirection and disorder of his affections affected his understanding of the world around him, impeded his relationships with others, and of course, destroyed a rational perception of the goodness and beauty of Christmas.

After a miraculous experience which allows him to explore his past, present, and future, enabling him to see where he came from, who he had become, and where his decisions were taking him, Scrooge had a profound conversion. The scales fell from his eyes and he was able to see the errors of his miserly ways. He had a newfound understanding of reality and was able to detach himself from the vices that enabled his mistreatment of others, and, in turn, brought about his crotchety behavior, a behavior one can assume to be a symptom of inward anguish.

It is important to highlight that the change in Scrooge catalyzed by the visits from the Christmas spirits emphasizes the difference between a person who is attached to his or her self and possessions and a person who is detached from these things. When Scrooge fell under the former category, he was a miserable crank enslaved to the need to cut costs even at the cost of others, but at the moment he joins the latter category, he is happy and free to love and be loved by others. We can see that this freedom to love and be happy came about from his detachment from the world and the foggy outlook on life that occurs in one who focuses too much on the material aspect of reality.

Detaching himself from love of his fortune, he began seeking out those to bless with his charity, giving gifts and raising the salary of his clerk Bob Cratchit. Additionally, he detaches himself from his pride to attend the Christmas festivities of his nephew and enjoys the company of all those in attendance. Furthermore, with his time and treasure, Scrooge actually becomes a witness to others of how a good Christian should live, especially during Christmastime.

In our own lives, we might not be as bad as Scrooge was, but we can still learn from his transformation. We can easily comprehend the truth that living for ourselves at the detriment of others will leave us unfulfilled and empty. We can recognize that, even at a lesser degree than Scrooge, an overemphasis on material things can leave us craving more from life and subsequently unsatisfied.

As humans we are made for more than simply what comes to us through our senses. Christians recognize the true nature of the human person as a body and a soul. At our essence, we are more than a body, we are also spirit, and therefore belong to the spiritual realm just as much as we do to the physical. Due to this aspect of our existence, remembering that to be human is to be both of body and of soul, forgetting or ignoring that we are more than material bodies reduces the human person to less than human, it dehumanizes them. Moreover, we dehumanize ourselves when we forget this, especially if we treat ourselves as beings only in need of material things or beings that can only be happy with material things.

When we view ourselves in this light, treating ourselves as less than human, we restrict ourselves from the things that only humans can enjoy, such as joy, peace, and freedom. It is therefore essential that we remember our humanity and also focus on the spiritual aspect of reality within ourselves, other people, and the world around us. Doing this will allow us to change for the better just like Scrooge did. By letting go of the world, we will be able to soar to grand new heights.

I would like to think that if someone was given only the two different Scrooges portrayed in A Christmas Carol, without the rest of the story, and granted the choice of which Scrooge he or she would prefer to be like, most people would choose the happy, generous, and free Scrooge. When shown the rest of the story we see two supporting characters that help to identify the direction of each path the two Scrooges are going down. The first is the opening image of Jacob Marley, lonely, wailing, and in chains. The second is Tiny Tim, who, even through discomfort and inconvenience, is happy, grateful, and loved by all.

Scrooge is able to escape the slavish fate of Marley and embrace the freedom of Tiny Tim by way of detachment. We can assume that the further Scrooge continues down this path, the better his life will become. Moreover, we can assume that we too can escape the miserable chains of Marley and embrace the true love and unaffected joy of Tiny Tim if we too detach ourselves from the world.

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Images: A Christmas Carol title page; Marley’s Ghost (John Leech, 1843) / PD-US

Read the Bible By Going To Mass

I remember an impactful talk given by Dr. Scott Hahn in an Atlanta home a little less then a year ago. In it he compared Catholics’ knowledge of the Bible to children’s knowledge of the streets in their hometown, not so much by knowing the street names, but from the memory of walking through them their whole lives. He underlined how the Liturgical hermeneutic, reading the Bible in the Mass, allows us to experience and know the Scriptures.

St. Paul authored the first Letter to the Thessalonians, the first document from the New Testament to be written down, around A.D. 51-52. This means that there were about 19 years in which the only Scriptures the early Christians had was the Old Testament. The New Testament would come about by Christians writing down the teachings and events of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus, with some explaining these things through letters, like First Thessalonians.

The importance of Scripture is highlighted in the Catholic faith, as it is one of two modes of transmission of the Divine Word of God, His Revelation of Himself to man so that we might not just know about God, but know Him personally. The Scriptures, along with Oral Tradition, the other means by which we have received God’s Word, allow us to come into contact with God’s Revelation of Himself. These two unique communications of this Revelation meet in the Mass, where the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist form together for mankind the highest and most meaningful prayer.

Therefore we can accurately say that in the Mass is the best place to read the Bible. An analogy may be drawn with the works of Shakespeare. While for some, Shakespeare’s plays are a little confusing at times, they are nonetheless wonderful stories to read. Moreover, an interesting aspect of these stories is that they were not only meant to be read in a book. They are meant to be acted out on a stage. To be seen live in person, with the words heard as they are pronounced in iambic pentameter.

So too are the Scriptures meant to be performed, not at a playhouse, but in the Mass. In the heart of the Church, with the Source and Summit of Grace, the Eucharist, we are able to experience the Scriptures. The Mass is drenched with the Bible. From the prayers of the priest to the responses of the people, and the very actions within this Holy Celebration, we see the Scriptures brought to life. We might not see the Centurion and his servant when we quote Matthew 8 crying out, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”. Okay, we say soul, he said servant, but the message is still the same. Furthermore, we hear the Word proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word.

In fact, it was the Holy Spirit guiding the Early Church in choosing which readings of that time should be proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word that helped to form the Canon itself. We can say that the New Testament was assembled in the Mass. And if we look at the direction in which both the Old Testament and the New Testament go, both separately and united, we can see that we are guided by the Scriptures to the Mass. The Israelites were formed and eventually brought to the Promised Land, and were given a Temple to worship in. The Temple Life was active around the time of Jesus and He was very happy with most of what was going on there. However, He came to give us more, and the Scriptures bring us to what He does in the Upper Room. Moreover, Acts 2:42 gives us a glimpse of the life of the Early Church after Christ’s Resurrection: “And they held steadfastly to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.”

The Breaking of Bread refers to the Eucharist. At least that’s what St. Paul communicates in 1 Corinthians 10:16, “The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the Body of Christ?” Holy Mass

The Scriptures lead us to the Mass and the Mass gives us the Scriptures. The relationship between the two highlights the heavy celebration of the Word of God by the Catholic Church. It also connects us to the Scriptures as we participate in the Heavenly Liturgy we read about in the Book of Revelation.

And so we see that not only is attending Mass a great way to read the Bible, it is irreplaceably the best way to read the Sacred Page. Or better yet, to breathe the Sacred Page as we truly act out the Bible by going to Mass. In fact, in the Mass, the whole person experiences the Scriptures, body and soul.

In each part of the Mass, the human person is either standing, sitting, or kneeling. And in each part of the Mass, the human is either praising God through His Words, adoring God with His Words, or Reflecting on God in His Words. When we stand we pray and receive God through the Scriptures; when we kneel we adore and exalt God with the Scriptures; and when we sit, we reflect and meditate on God in the Scriptures.

Furthermore, through our responses taken directly from the Bible, we allow for the Scriptures to move through us, using all three powers of the human soul, the memory, the intellect, and the will. In this way, we are not merely passive in the Liturgy, but are actively participating.

With the memory, we memorize the responses to recall and proclaim and further remember the stories of Scripture as they are read to us again and again over the course of our lives. We are assenting to the Scriptures with our intellects, receiving them and reflecting on them as they too are proclaimed back to us throughout the Mass. Finally, we use our wills to choose to participate through the responses with the Holy Words of the Scriptures, and honor God through them. This last part is true love, attaching the heart to the mind’s and body’s participation.

The Scriptures are then breathed in and out of the Mystical Body of Christ at every Mass united together throughout the whole World. Moreover, we have the same Scriptures at every Mass to drive the heartbeat of the Church to one rhythm filling our veins with grace, as we not only allow God’s Word to once again build us up from clay, but also to cover our bones with the flesh of dignity, and then redeem us through His sacrifice and Resurrection. This same Mystery, proclaimed to us in the very Word, is again and again re-presented to us in the Mass, while the words that first inform us and remind us of it are actually proclaimed.

In this way, we see the greatest method to read the Bible and know its truths. In the Mass, we are not simply given a map of the Bible, not even a street view, but in a mystical way, an experience of the Bible. In the Mass, we breath, we speak, and sing the Words of the Sacred Page as actors in the Liturgical Play. Let us continue to commit ourselves to giving our best in each performance. May God be with us all.

‘As the Mass moved on, however, something hit me. My Bible wasn’t just beside me. It was before mein the words of the Mass! One line was from Isaiah, another from the Psalms, another from Paul. The experience was overwhelming. I wanted to stop everything and shout, “Hey, can I explain what’s happening from Scripture? This is great!” Still, I maintained my observer status. I remained on the sidelines until I heard the priest pronounce the words of consecration: “This is My body… This is the cup of My blood.”‘
The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass As Heaven On Earth by Scott Hahn (former Presbyterian minister)

Image: Signum-Crucis

Les Misérables and the Church Militant

les-mizRecently I had the chance to see Les Misérables on Broadway for the second time, and its themes of mercy, redemption, and sacrificial love have been swirling through my mind ever since. It’s no secret that the story, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, is filled with themes that reflect Catholic spirituality. What struck me most this time was how the characters expressed different attitudes toward the value of human life, and how that affected their own search for meaning and fulfillment.

LES-MIS-AUSTRALIAN-PRODUCTION-2014-Barricade-PHOTO-CREDIT-MATT-MURPHY-300x207(1)The central character, Jean Valjean, seems to be doomed to a life of poverty and ostracism as an ex-convict. But when he is shown undeserved mercy by the kindly bishop, his life is turned around, and he chooses to use the bishop’s gift to become a better man. His bitterness and cynicism fade away and are replaced by an honest, hardworking spirit and compassion toward others. At the very beginning of the play, Valjean cannot see the value of anyone’s life, including his own. He says of the bishop, “He told me that I have a soul. How does he know?” By the end, Valjean is not only deeply aware of his own soul but also of everyone else’s; he saves multiple lives throughout the play, including that of his enemy, Javert. After he is shown love, he learns to love others, too, and in doing so he saves himself. His life is a testament against an every-man-for-himself attitude, even as others declare, “At the end of the day she’ll be nothing but trouble / and there’s trouble for all when there’s trouble for one.” By taking on other people’s troubles, Valjean finds love and redemption.

Les-Miserables-Still-les-miserables-2012-movie-32902250-1280-853In the middle of the first act, we are introduced to a group of students in Paris. Their leader, Enjolras, is filled with revolutionary ideals and is willing to die for his cause. The students meet to discuss equality and democracy, putting plans into motion to resist the monarchy and fight for the rights of the poor and working-class citizens. Where the noblemen look away, turning a blind eye to the injustice in their city and the wretched circumstances among the lower class, these students are attentive to those who are most in need, and they are willing to defend them.

1329662188-2012.barricade.crop.05.lesmiserables.us.fallofrainHowever, for all their focus on the rights of the working people, the students sometimes miss the point of what it really means to value each and every human life, especially Enjolras. His willingness to die for a just cause is noble, but he begins to take this idea too far, seeing the lives of the revolutionaries as merely ammunition to use toward the cause, a means to an end. When his friend Marius begins to question whether he wants to fight and risk his life, Enjolras sings: “Who cares about your lonely soul? / We strive toward a larger goal / Our little lives don’t count at all!” But the fight should be entirely about each individual soul. Isn’t the idea supposed to be that their little lives count for everything, that there is dignity in every human soul, even the poor, lowly ones? Enjolras campaigns for social justice and the dignity of every man (“Every man shall be a king!”), yet he fails to see the dignity of a simple life that does not end in a hero’s death. It is as though he believes that martyrdom alone will make his life worth something. His disregard for his life in service to something greater is noble, but his disregard for his soul is not. We ought to be willing to die for truth and goodness if necessary, but we also ought to guard and defend our lives, as well as those of others. We may have noble ideals that are never achieved in our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean that our lives aren’t still worth living in this imperfect world.

lesmisstill-013Enjolras and his friends eventually face their death at the barricade, and for all their efforts, no real change results. The women in the neighborhood mourn their loss, singing, “They were schoolboys / never held a gun / fighting for a new world that would rise up like the sun / Where’s that new world now the fighting’s done?” And Marius, the sole survivor of the group, gives a heartbreaking eulogy for his friends: “Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me / what your sacrifice was for / Empty chairs at empty tables / where my friends will sit no more.” The true value of their “little” lives is felt fully after their death, through the heaviness of their absence.

LES-MIS-AUSTRALIAN-PRODUCTION-2014-Hayden-Tee-PHOTO-CREDIT-MATT-MURPHY-300x200Another character who struggles to understand the meaning of his own life is Inspector Javert. All his life, he has been committed to upholding the law and serving justice, which has kept him on the hunt for Valjean. To him, Valjean will always be a criminal and a danger to society, and he wants him back behind bars. However, after Valjean saves his life, Javert faces a crisis of conscience. He begins to realize that Valjean might not be entirely evil, and he himself might not be entirely good. When Javert is faced with his own errors and forced to reevaluate his entire perception of the world around him, he is unable to reconcile his current confusion and doubt with the deep-seated sense of clarity and justice that has guided him all his life. He reaches a critical point of decision that echoes Valjean’s in Act One, but where Valjean had chosen to call upon God’s mercy and begin anew, Javert makes the opposite choice. 1329662778-2012.resize.landing.19.lesmiserables.us.barricadeWhen Valjean faced his sins and shortcomings, he made a resolution to transform his life for the good, to turn to God despite his unworthiness. But when Javert sees that his own worldview is flawed, he can’t face the frightening uncertainty of a world he doesn’t understand. When he saw everything in black and white, he knew his role in the world and was confident that he was acting for goodness and justice. Now he can’t be sure that his actions are just, and without that, he doesn’t understand the worth of his life at all. Has he really been working for justice all his life, or has he been doing harm? Is Valjean a monster or a saint? Rather than face the complicated nature of human imperfection, concupiscence, and mercy, Javert simply gives up. Overwhelmed by this inner turmoil, he commits suicide. If only he had understood the concept of mercy, he might have had a transformation to rival Valjean’s; instead, his is a tragic ending.

lm_finale0599I was especially moved by the staging of the finale, in which Valjean dies in the arms of his daughter Cosette. As he leaves this world and passes into the next, Valjean is joined by characters who have preceded him in death, and together they sing a song of victory. Cosette, dressed in her wedding dress, cries in the arms of her groom, Marius, and the song that rises from the group of souls above seems to be directed at the newlywed couple: “Will you join in our crusade? / Who will be strong and stand with me? / Somewhere beyond the barricade / is there a world you long to see?” After death, these characters have reached the ultimate goal—the glory of heaven—and they sing to those still on earth, encouraging them to continue the good fight and join them at the end of their lives. They are the Church Triumphant, singing to the Church Militant. Cosette and Marius are at the beginning of their own journey toward heaven through the vocation of marriage; they are called to be noble and valiant amid the challenges they will surely face along the way.

img_6403In the finale, we see that the students did finally achieve a victory, but their victory did not come on earth. The day before their rebellion, they had sung, “When the beating of your heart / echoes the beating of the drums / there is a life about to start / when tomorrow comes!” They believed that the fulfillment of their hopes and ideals would come “tomorrow,” that in just one day they would achieve an earthly utopia. But in the finale, they sing, “Do you hear the people sing? / Say, do you hear the distant drums? / It is the future that they bring / when tomorrow comes!” This time, they are singing about heaven. They used to think that the “tomorrow” they were working toward was a new era of peace and justice in the world, but in reality their “tomorrow” arrives after their death, when they enter the “world beyond the barricade.” Only then do they realize that what they were really fighting for was heaven itself, for themselves and as many as they could help along the way. Their lives were a journey toward a greater destination. They were, as we are now, part of the Church Militant, fighting for the good amidst a fallen world. May we all strive to reach the Church Triumphant and sing with them of the world beyond the barricade.


Images:
Header: Universal Pictures
1. Universal Pictures
2. Matt Murphy
3. Universal Pictures
4. Deen van Meer
5. Universal Pictures
6. Matt Murphy
7. Deen van Meer
8. Stephen R. Buntrock
9. Come and Go By Bubble

Detachment

 

I recently attended a live performance of the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. The cast did an excellent job portraying the well known tale in a new and creative way while remaining diligently faithful to the book. This fidelity to the authentic work allowed for the original themes, the ones that Dickens intended to highlight, shine through to the audience.

Dickens wrote the original story in his early 30’s while he was beginning to fade from the limelight. On top of wanting to be popular again, he sought to highlight the utilitarianism and injustice involved in the mistreatment of workers and their families that occurred during the Industrial Revolution in London.  This included the horrors of child labor, the innocent victims of which Dickens further desired to catechize through his engaging story.

The rich narrative  of A Christmas Carol is multifaceted with many themes for one to touch on as a starting point for great philosophical and theological discussions. The one I found most profound and heralding toward edification is the theme of Scrooge’s transformation from a money grubbing crank to a generous and spiritual philanthropist. This manifests the truth that misery comes from selfishness and life-giving joy will spring forth from selflessness.

At the beginning of the story, Scrooge was beyond being tolerable with his stingy intentions of saving as best he could to the penny, even at the expense and health of his workers. This misdirection and disorder of his affections impacted his understanding of the world around him, impeded his relationships with others, and of course, destroyed a rational perception of the goodness and beauty of Christmas.

After a miraculous experience which allows him to explore his past, present, and future, enabling him to see where he came from, who he had become, and where his decisions were taking him, Scrooge had a profound conversion. The scales fell from his eyes and he was able to see the errors of his miserly ways. He had a newfound understanding of reality and was able to detach himself from the vices that enabled his mistreatment of others, and, in turn, brought about his crotchety behavior, a behavior one can assume to be a symptom of inward anguish.

It is important to highlight that the change in Scrooge catalyzed by the visits from the Christmas spirits emphasizes the difference between a person who is attached to his or her self and possessions and a person who is detached from these things. When Scrooge falls under the former category, he is a miserable crank enslaved to the need to cut costs even at the cost of others, but at the moment he joins the latter category he is happy and free to love and be loved by others. We can see that this freedom to love and be happy came about from his detachment from the world and the foggy outlook of life that occurs for one who focuses too much on the material aspect of reality.

Detaching himself from his love of his fortune, he began seeking out those to bless with his charity, giving gifts and raising the salary of his clerk Bob Cratchit. Additionally, he detaches himself from his pride to attend the Christmas festivities of his nephew and enjoys the company of all those in attendance. Furthermore, with his time and treasure, Scrooge actually becomes a witness to others of how a good Christian should live, especially during Christmastime.

In our own lives, we might not be as bad as Scrooge was, but we can still learn from his transformation. We can easily comprehend the truth that living for ourselves at the detriment of others will leave us unfulfilled and empty. We can recognize that, even at a lesser degree than Scrooge, an overemphasis on material things can leave us craving more from life and subsequently unsatisfied.

As humans we are made for more than simply what comes to us through our senses. Christians recognize the true nature of the human person as a body and a soul. At our essence, we are more than a body, we are also spirit, and therefore belong to the spiritual realm just as much as we do to the physical. Due to this aspect of our existence, remembering that to be human is to be both of body and of soul, forgetting or ignoring that we are more than material bodies reduces the human person to less than human, it dehumanizes them. Moreover, we dehumanize ourselves when we forget this, especially if we treat ourselves as beings only in need of material things or beings that can only be happy with material things.

When we view ourselves in this light, treat ourselves as less than human, we restrict ourselves from the things that only humans can enjoy, such as joy, peace, and freedom. It is therefore essential that we remember our humanity and also focus on the spiritual aspect of reality within ourselves, other people, and the world around us. Doing this will allow us to change for the better just like Scrooge did. By letting go of the world, we will be able to soar to grand new heights.

I would like to think that if someone was given only the two different Scrooges portrayed in A Christmas Carol, without the rest of the story, and granted the choice of which Scrooge he or she would prefer to be like, most people would choose the happy, generous, and free Scrooge. When shown the rest of the story we see two supporting characters that help to identify the direction of each path the two Scrooges are going down. The first is the opening image of Jacob Marley, lonely, wailing, and in chains. The second is Tiny Tim, who, even through discomfort and inconvenience, is happy, grateful, and loved by all.

Scrooge is able to escape the slavish fate of Marley and embrace the freedom of Tiny Tim by way of detachment. We can assume that the further Scrooge continues down this path, the better his life will become. Moreover, we can assume that we too can escape the miserable  chains of Marley and embrace the true love and unaffected joy of Tiny Tim if we too detach ourselves from the world.

 

Thomas ClementsThomas Clements is a High School and Middle School Theology Teacher. He graduated with an B.A. in Theology from Southern Catholic College and received an M.A. in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. On the side he has recorded a CD and performs music at various colleges, churches, and conferences. He lives with his wife and 3 children in Atlanta, GA.

Whatever Isn't Love

I was crying again. Sitting in the semi-darkness, the only light coming from the muted TV. Rocking her, always rocking her. My little 3rd child, the one who smiled at me first. The one who cries and cries when not in arms. The one whose body relaxes as I ease her into the Ergo, heart to heart once more. My girl baby who spent all 8 months of pregnancy curled up, belly to belly with mom. She had just finished crying for nearly an hour, our evening ritual of settling down, of physically expelling the stress of the day from her tired little body.

Eric was on the couch, holding a sleeping Charlie who had a harder than normal transition to bed. My sweet boy. My strong little one who even at 3 days old, only 5 pounds, was holding his head up and straining against me. The one who needs to face out, to take in his world, just as his sister needs to be huddled close to my heart. They may have shared a womb and a birthday, but they are as different as possible, these twins.

Earlier that evening big sister Maggie was jumping on her bed when she should have been getting ready to sleep. She lost her footing and hit her head on the wall, wailing, “Mommy!”

I ran to her room, baby in arms, to find Dad, baby in arms, trying to comfort her as much as he could. When you have two infants and a three-year-old, there aren’t enough arms for all of the little hearts who want to be held. I set down her sister, which began that tiny infant cry we have grown so used to hearing — the sound of defeat, the sound of, “You can’t please all the people all the time” and “Sometimes someone has to cry”. Mary Cate drew the short straw.

I scooped my firstborn, my gingersnap, my Maggie into my arms. I kissed her head and gently tucked her into bed. She held my hand in hers and said, “I love you Mommy.” This girl is all heart. She wears her emotions on her sleeve, and in that way has inherited more than just my eyes. She relishes her role as big sister, and loves “her babies” fiercely. But tonight, she needed to be the baby. She needed me and only me — all of me — to soothe her tired head.

We read her favorite stories (this week: Sofia, Frozen, and Everyday Dress Up). We snuggled close, me and this amazing child who steals my heart and tries my patience. Everyday she does this. My child that I struggled the most to connect with, the most to love. Turns out she is so much like me, and now my heart swells at the sight of her sleeping soundly.

I walked out of her room and back to the living room, back to screaming Mary Cate.

Then I cried.

I said to my husband,

“These children are literally shaving years and years off of my stint in purgatory.”  I best online casino like to use humor to deflect my emotions.

His response?

“They sure are. That is their job.” He is never particularly wordy.

Then I said, voice shaking, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore.”

This. The relentlessness washing over me, a bed of river rock being worn down by their endless need. There isn’t a moment when I’m awake when someone doesn’t need me, or when I’m not working to keep our family afloat. Even now, I’m only able to write this because of the generous gift of time given by my mother-in-law.

My Eric, he’s a smart man. I love that about him. But what I love even more, is that he is so wise. He shut down my one-woman pity party with a few short sentences.

“You can do this, because you have done it. Every day for the past 9 weeks. You will do it, because you love them. You just want to quit because its hard.”

Of course I want to quit because its hard, so has every person who has ever run a marathon, or written a symphony, gotten a PhD, or fought in a war. That’s the human condition. Every single thing that’s worth doing in life is hard. Everybody wants to quit sometimes.

Fallen human nature seeks to flee from every kind of suffering, even the kind that is short-lived and comes hand-in-hand with joy. That is why, even though I wanted these babies with every piece of my heart, I also want to run screaming from the house at least once a day.

But I don’t. I don’t leave. I do the best I can for these little terrorists, knowing that they are capable of giving very little in return. In a Dar Williams song, she says:

“What do you love more than love? When the giving is all that you ever get back, oh how do I love like that? Can you tell me, oh, how to love?”

And Heaven, Heaven is the place where everything that isn’t love has been burned away. Heaven is to be in the presence of a God who is love, and nothing more. Purgatory is the state of being where everything that isn’t love is burned away.

These little people, they force me to confront my own selfishness. How I greedily hoard my time, like Gollum with an hourglass. They hold up a mirror to my face, and I cannot turn away. I have to see the lack of patience, the places where my heart is full of anything but love. They overwhelm me. They push me farther than I thought I could go. And they’re saving me.

Every day that goes by when I put them ahead of myself, when I give up what I want in order to give them what they need, a piece of myself that isn’t love is burned away. Every day that goes by when I love them – imperfectly, but sincerely – is one day closer to Heaven.

I have wondered more than once why he trusted me with these twins and their sister. I’m impatient, selfish, and passionate. I’m not cut out for this motherhood stuff. But, God doesn’t see that when he sees me. He sees the mother I can be, when those damaged parts are burned away. He knows that the purification happens only in the mothering, only in the doing.

He know what he is about.

If Saints Were Superheroes

I am a product of our culture. Like it or not, I find myself not only impressed but also convicted by “new expressions” of faith called for in the New Evangelization. Recently, I heard a talk by Fr. Mike Schmitz that I found to be not just a clever example of one such new expression but (probably because I’m a product of modern culture) a penetrating insight into the nature of the universal call to be a saint. Below, I summarize his explanation of life in Christ given to a group of young adults. Pay attention to the theological depth present through such a relatable cultural medium. In my opinion, Fr. Mike is a shining example of who the “new evangelist” is called to be.The question: If a saint were a modern day superhero, to which one might he or she best be compared? In his talk on Baptism titled “Changed Forever,” Fr. Mike explores four options.  
1. Is it Superman? Are we all closet Clark Kent’s walking around in disguise? There are many who claim that the saint is someone who learns, not only to realize, but to actualize his full potential as a human being. Certain philosophers have argued that human nature is comparable to Superman (Fr. Mike points out Rousseau, but Nietzsche actually calls the fully evolved person The Superman). The overarching idea is that we’re all perfectly good just as we are. All we must do is free ourselves from the chains of social conditioning and expectation, and simply recognize the truth about who we are. This, of course, is absurd. We all know we have weaknesses, flaws, imperfections, limitations, and – yes! – sinful desires. 

Superman is an illusion.

2. What about Batman? Is Bruce Wayne the modern model of sanctity? Here, I think is humanity’s greatest temptation. The idea is that, if we work hard enough, if our desire is strong enough, we can overcome all of our weaknesses and imperfections. This, of course, is a 1600 year old heresy called “Pelagianism.” A bishop named Pelagius, in the fourth century, argued that man could work his way to heaven. It would require years of hard work and utter dedication, but it could be done, the potential is there. 

Thank God the Lord gave the Church St. Augustine and put a stop to this nonsense (at least on paper). Batman is bogus as well. The truth is, without the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ, man is a slave to his fallen nature and could never do anything to fully satisfy his natural desire for happiness or to make himself worthy of heaven.

“The law…contributes nothing to God’s saving act: through it he does but show man his weakness, that by faith he may take refuge in the divine mercy and be healed.” (St. Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter)
3. “Might the saint be Iron Man?” asks Fr. Mike. It sounds a little bizarre, given his private life, but could Tony Stark represent the secret to holiness (metaphorically, of course)? The saint, after all, as St. Paul says, has “put on Christ.” Sure, Tony Stark, the billionaire genius, is endowed with incredible natural gifts, but without his suit he’s left with the same brokenness and sinful desires, not to mention a heart condition that will surely take his life in short order. With the suit, however, he’s unstoppable and possesses superhuman capabilities. He can soar to the heavens with a savior-like quality. 

Does Tony Stark represent the nature of a saint: a man clothed with Christ, but deep down the same broken sinner? This is a devastating temptation for many faithful men and women. (Martin Luther called us “dung covered with snow.”) Oh, how deeply we misunderstand the incredible goodness and dignity of God’s design for us if this is how we define salvation! It’s true that we put on Christ and that it is indeed his righteousness that saves us, but the Father in heaven sees far more than a worthy shell when he looks upon his sons and daughters. To be clothed in Christ, as the title of Fr. Mike’s talk suggests, means that, at the deepest core of who we are, we are truly changed forever. The power of putting on Christ and his righteousness effects a transformation in us that is supernatural; we become children of God, healed of our brokenness, transfigured by his glory, and transubstantiated into his likeness. 

In other words, by grace, we become what Jesus is by nature. In Christ, we do what we otherwise could not do. We become what is otherwise impossible.

“For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” (St. Athanasius,CCC 460)
4. No, Fr. Mike explains, if the saint were a superhero he couldn’t be a Superman, a Batman, nor an Iron Man; he’d have to go by the name of Steve Rogers. Here’s a man who longed, more than anything else, to be a great soldier; and, no matter how hard he tried, he always came up short. “You’re too weak. You’re too slow. You don’t have what it takes to be among the greatest.” His life was a constant disappointment… until he discovered the “super-secret soldier serum.” Suddenly, overnight, he possessed a kind of strength above and beyond even the greatest of soldiers. He became Captain America, a man fully perfected in his humanity but also elevated to supernatural capacities.

Here’s the point. In The Avengers, Tony Stark (Iron Man) smugly dismisses Steve Rogers and says, “There’s nothing special about you that doesn’t come from a bottle.” Applying this to personal holiness, what if someone were to say to the Blessed Mother (or any of the Saints), “There’s nothing special about you that doesn’t come from the Holy Spirit”? How do you think she would respond? 

“And? Your point is…?”

When we say yes to Christ, when we put on his righteousness, and allow his Holy Spirit to work a miracle of grace in us, everything changes. It’s true there’s nothing special about us that doesn’t come from the Holy Spirit. So what! We’re children of God now, and by his grace, everything about us is special. This is Baptism!

Of course, we’re not called to be superheroes. Saints are far more than that, and the process of sanctification doesn’t happen overnight as it did for Steve Rogers. However, this reflection on Baptism is an example of what Pope John Paul II meant by “new expressions.” It exhibits cultural relevance without compromise of the Gospel, it’s challenging, and it’s fun. This is one of many new and engaging ways that Fr. Mike is helping so many (especially youth and young adults) not just to understand, but to enter more deeply into the beauty and mystery of life in Christ. Fr. Mike Schmitz is a priest of the New Evangelization. His gift for bringing the Gospel to life through relevant cultural expressions is a model for us all. 

Lighthouse Catholic Media carries a number of Fr. Mike’s talks (available on MP3 or CD format at wholesale prices). If you’re interested in ordering, CLICK HERE 

Merry Digital Christmas

tvAs the day of Christ’s birth hurtles towards us, it is definitely easy to get caught up in the spin of things. Retailers, desperate to meet their bottom line and land a huge haul this shopping season, barrage us with seemingly great offers on all kinds of interesting items. Some are actually great gifts, others are useless crap. In the preparation for the arrival of God incarnate, we also want to give our kids a nice Christmas; in gifts and also hopefully along the spiritual element of this momentous holiday. The big question is: what can we get them?

Pushing the purely secular, greedy version of Christmas aside, let’s take a look at all those fancy electronic gadgets that are screaming “Buy at this obnoxiously low price for only a limited time!” There are ipads, iphones, ipods, flat screen TVs on which you could land a small aircraft, laptops that double as nuclear reactors, and all those video games, with 10,000 hours of playing time! We have a whole digital universe oftentimes more realistic and exciting than the real one right at our fingertips. That’s gotta be pretty exciting for kids these days. I mean, how many of you with a five year old have discovered how adept they can become on a smartphone? It’s kinda scary. The real question that we parents need to be asking and educating ourselves on is, “How much screen time is good for my child(ren)?”

I was only born in 1981, but I can definitely see how much things have changed in the “digital landscape” since I was a kid. I was excited to get a Sega Genesis one year when I was in sixth grade. Now there is social media like Facebook, video games that cater to adults well into their thirties, the internet, and….you get the idea. There is so much digital media being thrown at our kids that it must make us wonder how much of it is good, and at what point does it become harmful to the social, spiritual, physical, and psychological development of our children? What age is appropriate to give a kid a laptop or an iphone? An ipod? A brand new video game system? 5? 7? 12?

As parents, we want the best for our kids. We have a responsibility given to us by God to nurture these little ones into healthy adults who can discern their vocations and serve God faithfully and truthfully. Yeah, that sounds good on paper, but seriously, when you’re home with several toddlers and you’re sick, the house is a disaster, the kids are all screaming and yelling and running rampant, sometimes you just say, “Here, you can watch a movie!” Every parent has done that. I know I’m guilty. That’s one thing, but when screen time consumes more and more of each day, how much is too much? If all the kids want to do is attach to the screen, even when they’re on a playdate, or can’t wait to get home from one just to get back on the screen, there may be an issue. According to the Mayo Clinic, letting young kids spend more than two hours with a screen can lead to obesity, behavior problems, and irregular sleep, to name a few. In my personal opinion, two hours a day seems like a bit much.

Childhood can be a magical time when things are new and exciting. Young children are naturally curious and want to learn about things. You should see my four year old son come up with one of his “projects” some time. Oh the clean up… When kids plop in front of a screen, it’s like they zone out and stop thinking. It’s like the imagination turns off. Sure there are some great educational programs out there, but when the medium is a screen, it may not always be best. (Just my opinion there) When that exciting natural curiosity of children is encouraged through reading and exploring, they can have a rich world of learning and physical exploration, like tromping through a meadow or doing arts and crafts. Staring at a screen for hours on end takes all of that away.

The jury seems to be out on the effect of violent media, such as video games and TV, but I think any parent can tell you that children like to imitate whatever it is they see, whether it’s on a screen or not. I know I have seen it in my own kids. My wife and I not only monitor the content of programs for violence and language, but we also check out the attitude of the people in the program. We’ve found some shows that are intended for kids to be pretty sassy, with the main characters hauling around quite a ‘tude towards adults and parents. Sound strict? That’s just what we do. I’ve seen my own kids mimic the attitudes of people they see on TV, so we can only imagine how 4 year old little Johnny is going to react to Terminator 2, or how 10 year old Timmy is going to act when he’s playing Call of Duty online with 36 year old men who are swearing like wannabe sailors. Maybe not too good…

Social media has taken a dominant place in the social lives of teenagers, as well as adults. Aside from the question of “Should 7 year old Sarah have a Facebook account”, how much social media is good for the social development of teenagers and at what point does it become harmful? Surely it’s a great way for fast communication and such, but the rise of cyber bullying, sexting, and the inability to form real relationships may cause one to wonder how much is too much? Then there’s this interesting piece from the Huffington Post that discusses how the texting and Facebooking ruins teen relationships by being “too connected.” It’s easy to sit behind a screen and go on a trolling binge in the com box of someone’s blog, but it’s much harder to have a civilized disagreement with someone face to face, or even over the telephone.

We are undoubtedly in the “digital age.” We, as parents, must find a way to navigate through it so that our children can still develop both neurologically and socially. Are we monitoring the use of screens so that it can be a simple leisure activity or are we allowing the screens to raise our kids? Please know that the point of this article isn’t to demonstrate my amazing knowledge of the topic at hand. I’m just trying to raise some questions and encourage parents to do some research into how all of these screens are affecting our children. I’m not saying that I have all the answers or that I am somehow better than any other parent out there. This stuff is tricky and we have to be ready to draw a line where needed. Let’s think about these things as we go about that last minute Christmas shopping.

Resources

1.  Limit Children Screen Time, Expert Urges

2.  Limiting Screen Time for Kids

3.  Teens and Video Games: How Much is Too Much?

4.  Parents Urged Again to Limit TV for Youngest

5. Screen Time Use in Children Under 3 Years Old: A Systematic Review of Correlates

6. Selected Research On Screen Time and Children

 

The Hidden Rebellion

The Hidden Rebellion
Why would a successful producer with 16 years of high-level experience and an offer to become the lead production manager for one of the most prominent major global media outlets suddenly give his notice?

It’s the same reason an award-winning director with a number of projects (and–even more time-consuming–a number of kids) would pick up and travel to France and volunteer his time, talent and treasure: For the cause of liberté.

Now, to be clear, this is in fact the current day and these two veteran filmmakers are not physically fighting. But they are fighting for hearts and minds just as so many faithful Christians fought so valiantly during the French Revolution through the filming of a powerful new docudrama to air on EWTN.

The project exposes the real–and previously hidden–story behind the French Revolution. The story is not one of populists against a tyrannical king as the narrative has played out, but more accurately represents a fight for the very soul of France: one that saw heinous religious persecution and a 117,000 person massacre. But not before a well-trained military ceded substantial ground to a loosely organized bunch of farmers and ‘wolf hunters’.

The oppressors, who eventually proved victorious, didn’t count on the steadfast faith of the Vendéans who refused to allow their priests to be exterminated through brute force. These simple peasants are our common ancestry in the Universal Church and they would never give up on religious liberty. Can we truly argue the same?

Indeed, much like the Cristeros in 1920’s Mexico and perhaps the United States of the future if we are not cautious, the Vendéans’ valiance is a story that must be told. This is not simply a cautionary tale, but one that can fuel global change if sufficient support can encourage the United Nations to recognize the massacre as a genocide.

This is critically important to us and for us as Catholics, as Christians and simply as people of good will. The French Revolution’s slaying of over 117,000 innocents served as the blueprint for Lenin, Pol Pot and other genocidal architects. Our response will serve as the blueprint for our children: What will that be?

As a reader, you have a choice: Do nothing and forget (as the French government has long tried to encourage). Or: Support the campaign to bring this docudrama to a reality and share this information with your Facebook network. You can contribute as little as $10 today by visiting http://igg.me/p/502381.

A vous de choisir – It’s up to you.

Lorenzo

Lorenzo, a contemporary opera about the life of St. Lorenzo Ruiz, oozes with all the human drama that can be extracted from the life of the saint. Director Nonon Padilla dares potential viewers to come out of the theater with their eyes dry.

The project was originally conceptualized as a movie which the actor Christopher de Leon planned to make in fulfillment of a panata or vow, with himself playing the role of the saint. Unfortunately, the movie project collapsed due to financial problems. The project was revived when the actor approached the historian-playwright Paul Dumol and asked the latter to write a play about St. Lorenzo Ruiz. Paul Dumol was reluctant at first since he had already written Felipe de las Casas, about another saint who lived in almost the same historical period as St. Lorenzo Ruiz. But Paul Dumol proposed that two of his former students, Juan Ekis and Joem Antonio write the play under his supervision, to which Christopher de Leon agreed. After several drafts and trial readings, with Nonon Padilla giving his input, the play was set to music by the composer Ryan Cayabyab.

The main source material for the play is the book by Fr. Fidel Villaroel, which in turn distills various primary sources used for Lorenzo Ruiz’s beatification. The most important document among them is an account by former Christians who acted as interpreters in the interrogation of Lorenzo Ruiz and his companion martyrs. Portuguese merchants smuggled the account from Japan to Macau, and from there it reached the Philippines through a Spanish friar.

Lorenzo employs the play-within-a-play device. It depicts the life of the 17th-century saint from the point of view of 21st century Filipino, an overseas worker in the Middle East named Lawrence who is condemned to death for having murdered his employer who sexually abused him. While awaiting his execution, Lawrence, who used to be actively involved in theater, copes with his depression by writing a play about the saint whose life, in many ways, parallels his own. As Lawrence grapples with his own anger against God over his fate, he reflects on the life of the first canonized Filipino martyr who left Spain-governed Manila as a fugitive from the law and who ended up in Japan where he was tortured and executed for his faith.

According to the playwright Paul Dumol, the challenge in producing a play about the life of a saint is avoiding the expected sentimental or hagiographical treatment which may discourage viewers from watching the play. The team behind Lorenzo steered away from a Hollywood-type depiction of miracles and stuck to the facts. As a result, the saint is depicted as a normal human being, who struggles with difficulties in forgiving and hesitation in the face of martyrdom.

While accounts are unclear on whether Lorenzo Ruiz committed the murder he was accused of, in this play, he is depicted as having killed a Spaniard who raped a family member. A parish priest who believes Lorenzo Ruiz is innocent helps him escape on a merchant ship going to Macau. Due to a storm, the ship has to go to Formosa (now Taiwan). Lorenzo Ruiz finds out that Formosa is also a Spanish enclave and therefore would not be a safe hiding place. On the advice of merchants, he boards a boat of missionaries en route to Japan.

In Japan, the missionaries and Lorenzo Ruiz are arrested for their faith. He witnesses the head of the mission, a certain Fray Antonio, remain calm amidst tortures and wonders where Fray Antonio derives his strength from. On the other hand, he sees Lazaro (depicted as a comic character in the play), a Japanese leper who, terrified by the tortures, gives up his faith. Lorenzo Ruiz is faced with his own choice. At one point, he is asked to trample a sacred image. He asks his tormentors if he will be given his freedom if he does so; the tormentors give no clear answer.

Drama unfolds as the inner struggles and intertwined fates of Lorenzo Ruiz and the present-day Lawrence are acted out on stage. Theatrical devices such as puppets, masks, mimes, giant dolls as Japanese judges, frames of a manga strip projected onstage enhance the play. In the Japan scenes, the play incorporates Japanese theatrical techniques.

The best element of the play is the musical score. Director Nonon Padilla raves about composer Ryan Cayabyab’s talent for translating words into musical emotion, and says that the music is inspired. When playwright Paul Dumol was asked if the play gave him any personal spiritual epiphany, he replied, “The closest I came to that was listening to the songs being performed to Ryan’s music for the first time. Suddenly, the emotions and struggles of Lorenzo Ruiz became real. One almost felt God was there in Ryan’s studio. Many others have had the same experience listening to the songs the first time. I hope that when they are performed, with sets and lights and costumes, we preserve that experience.”

I look forward to watching Lorenzo. It promises to combine visual and auditory spectacle with profound insight. The story it tells appeals to Filipinos everywhere who have experienced exile in a foreign land. Most importantly, I look forward to seeing how it depicts a saint grapple with grim and gritty realities, something our stereotyped view of sainthood sometimes fails to conceive. We need to be reminded how much the saints were human, too, like us.

Readers in the Philippines can watch Lorenzo on September 5,6,7, 12, 13, and 14, 2013. Performances are at 1pm and at 6pm at the New Theater of St. Benilde, Vito Cruz, Manila.

Jesus, Welcome to My Messy Home

“Jesus entered a village
where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.
She had a sister named Mary
who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.
Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said,
“Lord, do you not care
that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?
Tell her to help me.”
The Lord said to her in reply,
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part
and it will not be taken from her.”   – Luke 10:38-42

In Sunday’s Gospel we heard a familiar story about two sisters who were both close friends with our Lord; Mary and Martha. Imagine the scene:

Jesus is invited over to dine with them, to share their meal and their home. He arrives just in time to see Martha bustling from room to room, sweeping here and there, getting the four course meal (straight out of Bon Appetite) ready for their honored guest and friend. She nods in the direction of Jesus, giving him a smile while she carries another pan from the kitchen to the dining room. There will be plenty of time to talk, after everything is perfect, she tells herself.

Meanwhile, Martha’s sister, Mary pours a glass of water for Jesus and sits with him in the living room, eager to hear his voice again, his words dripping with wisdom and love. Martha’s ire grows as she watches the tender scene between these friends. Perhaps her heart feels some envy, wishing she best online casino too could be sitting quietly with her master, sharing her heart with him. But someone has got to make sure everything is just right, she mutters under her breath.

Finally, she can stand it no more and walks over to them. Jesus, she says, can you believe my sister is just sitting here chatting with you when there is still a table to be set, and food to serve, and and and….her voice traveling a mile a minute, her eyes imploring him to admonish Mary for her laziness. Instead he gives her the warm smile that he’s known for, his eyes searching her tired, burdened heart.

“Martha, Martha…You are anxious and worried about many things, there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.”

Martha…put down the dishrag and meet me where I sit, waiting for your company.
Martha…I don’t want a spotless home and a gourmet meal. I want your heart, your undivided attention.
Martha…You are troubled about many things, but they aren’t what really matters.
Martha…Only one thing is needed. And I am sitting in your living room, waiting for you.

***

Of course, Jesus isn’t saying that we should let our homes become an episode of Hoarders. We all have those duties that are required of us based on our state in life, and part of living a life of virtue is fulfilling them. However, that doesn’t mean our attention to those tasks should come at the cost of neglecting our relationship with God. It would be better to have a messy home and a vibrant interior life than to have a home out of a magazine spread, but be so occupied with maintaining it that we never hear God”s voice. The one thing that is needed is our relationship with God. Without it, we will truly wither and decay, no matter the state of our homes or our cooking.

He is the one thing needed.

However, it is easy to forget that and to pull back from God when things get messy, when we feel like we can’t get control over all that is lacking in our souls. Our pride whispers, “I can’t let him see me like this, not when everything is a mess. Once I get things in order, then I can let him in.”

That’s all backwards. We don’t invite God in after everything is perfect. We invite him in so that everything can be made perfect through Him. Jesus doesn’t expect a spotless house or a gourmet meal when he arrives in the dusty home that is our stony hearts. He knows full well of what we are made, of the state of our souls. We can’t fool or impress him.

What can we do? Like Mary, we can choose the better part. We can lay the broom down, walk over to the chair and sit with our Lord, unburdening our hearts, sharing our mess with the only one who can truly make us clean.

Shakespeare’s Nativity Scene

The works of William Shakespeare abound with the truths of the Catholic faith. Especially in his later plays (often called the “romances”), Shakespeare focuses his poetic imagination on the mysteries of grace, redemption, and resurrection. The results are surprising, strange, and wonderful stories that can do far more than entertain us. When he needed to teach his followers something important, our Lord told stories. This suggests that we are created in such a way that we can learn truth through stories, and that we can come to know our Lord through listening to stories.

Advent begins tomorrow and one way to prepare for Christ’s coming is to meditate on the story of his Nativity. Besides the Gospel accounts, one of my favorite stories to read during this season is Shakespeare’s play the Winter’s Tale. The story Shakespeare tells illuminates aspects of the Nativity story in a way that points me back, with increased wonder, to the Gospels and ultimately to our Lord Himself.

Like the story of the Nativity—which really begins with the story of the fall—the Winter’s Tale begins with a descent: the tragic fall of King Leontes. Leontes and Hermione, king and queen of Sicilia, are hosting King Polixenes of Bohemia, Leontes’ childhood friend. Great love exists between them all, but Leontes becomes suspicious of Hermione and Polixenes and convinces himself that the two are having an affair. The suspicion is unfounded—Hermione and Polixenes are clearly pure in their love and committed to the king’s own good—but none of this matters to Leontes. He accuses his pregnant wife of adultery, tries and condemns her, ignores the protest of his friends, blasphemes against the gods, and indirectly causes the death of his young son who cannot bear the false accusations against his mother.

The whole terrible fall happens suddenly in the beginning of the play with Leontes doubting the intentions of those who truly love him. Acting on this doubt, he makes rash and disastrous choices that cost him nearly everything. Sound familiar?

 [The serpent] said to the woman: Why hath God commanded you, that you should not eat of every tree of paradise?  And the woman answered him, saying: Of the fruit of the trees that are in paradise we do eat:  But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of paradise, God hath commanded us that we should not eat; and that we should not touch it, lest perhaps we die.  And the serpent said to the woman: No, you shall not die the death.  For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil. (Genesis 3)

Doubt God’s word; doubt his intentions; suspect that one who truly loves you is actually deceiving you and withholding some good from you—this is how the evil one tempts Adam and Eve to their destruction and these are the doubts that undo Leontes.

In a tragic turn, the queen Hermione gives birth to her baby girl while in prison awaiting trial. The king cruelly rejects his daughter as the “bastard” of Polixenes and orders one of his lords to take the child outside his realm and abandon it. The lord, Antigonus, obeys the king and sails off with the newborn whom he names Perdita (Latin for lost one). As soon as Antigonus abandons the baby, a savage bear chases him off stage and kills him. At the same moment, a storm sinks the ship Antigonus sailed in and drowns the crew.

Back in Sicilia, Leontes finally realizes his errors, but it’s too late. His newborn daughter has been abandoned in the wild. His slanderous words have effectively killed his son. When she hears of her son’s death, the queen swoons and also appears to die. Polixenes and Camillo, Leontes’ most trusted servant, flee in fear for their lives. Like an outcast from Eden, Leontes loses almost everything. Yet one seed of hope remains. Leontes receives a pronouncement from the Oracle at Delphi with these words from Apollo (the play is set in pagan times):

Hermione is chaste;
Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes
a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten;
and the king shall live without an heir, if that
which is lost be not found.

Shakespeare structures his story so that the fate of the entire kingdom depends upon one innocent babe, the truly begotten and rightful heir. Where have we heard that before?

Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus.  He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. (Luke 1)

When the Lord God of Hosts came into this world, he came as defenseless babe, born in a stable to a humble virgin married to a carpenter. This union of power and humility—so central to the Catholic faith—appears frequently in Shakespeare’s works, but it is especially clear here in the Winter’s Tale with the nativity of Perdita.

Perdita, the innocent child on whom the fate of the kingdom rests, lies abandoned in the wild. And who should first find and adore the child but a shepherd! The scene is comical, simple, sweet, and very down-to-earth—very like how our Lord’s Nativity must have been. The funny old shepherd appears, looking for some lost sheep of his and grumbling about the impertinence of youth when suddenly:

. . . what have we here! Mercy on ‘s, a barne a very
pretty barne! A boy or a child, I wonder? A
pretty one; a very pretty one: sure, some ‘scape . . .

The shepherd finds the child who will save the kingdom and whose name means the lost one while out looking for lost sheep—a subtle but profound touch which is so typical of Shakespeare and which points back to the mysterious divine artistry that first sent shepherds to adore the newborn Lamb of God.

The shepherd’s son then enters and tells his father he has seen a bear kill Antigonus and a storm sink the ship. The shepherd exclaims: “Heavy matters! heavy matters! but look thee here, boy. Now bless thyself: thou mettest with things dying, I with things newborn. Here’s a sight for thee,” and he presents the child.

Like the shepherds in Bethlehem, these shepherds of Shakespeare find themselves in the presence of something that fills them with awe. And while the fallen world may be going in one direction—to meet with things dying—these humble shepherds meet with something “newborn”—something life-giving. Although he’s not quite as eloquent, the old shepherd reminds me of Simeon meeting the infant Jesus and it helps me to picture how tenderly that patient old man must have cradled the Christ-child in his arms.

I don’t want to spoil the ending of the Winter’s Tale, so if you want to know what happens to the shepherds and Perdita and Leontes’ kingdom, you’ll just have to read it yourself (and you should, because there’s a surprise ending!). But as a final point, I want to clarify that none of this is to suggest that the Winter’s Tale is really just an allegory for Christ’s Nativity. It’s not about decoding which character in the play stands for which character in the Gospels. Rather, I would suggest that Shakespeare’s works, and especially the late romances, are fruits which grow organically from a very sacramental, Catholic understanding of the world. For this reason, it can be very fruitful to us to read Shakespeare in the light of Catholic scripture and tradition. His stories contain much worth meditating upon and they constantly point back to the Author of all our stories.

 

Stabat Mater Dolorosa

Saturday was the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. The celebration of Mary standing at the foot of the cross. The suffering mother of the suffering Servant.

It also happened to be the date of the South Bend-Fort Wayne Diocese women’s conference that I attended with some friends, where Scott and Kimberly Hahn were the speakers of the day. The conference started with Mass, celebrated by Bishop Kevin Rhodes. As we sat in the large conference room, listening to the readings, a sequence began. Beautiful music, courtesy of the Univeristy of Notre Dame women’s liturgical choir, filled the room.

I quietly cried as I read the words of the prayer being sung:

The greiving Mother/stood weeping by the cross/while her Son hung there.
For the sins of his people/she saw Jesus tortured and scourged.
She saw her sweet Son/dying and forsaken/as he gave up his spirit.
Oh Mother, fount of love/make me feel the force of your grief.
So that I may mourn with you/grant that my heart may burn/in loving Christ, my God/so that I may be pleasing to him.
Make me lovingly weep with you/to suffer with the crucified as long as I shall live.
To stand with you beside the cross/and to join with you in deep lament/this I long for and desire.

Who can pray these words and mean them? Do we really want to feel the force of Mary’s grief? To embrace the deep well of sorrow that comes from holding the lifeless body of her child, of her God? Who can be bold enough to utter such a prayer with any sincerity?

I read those words and my first reaction is “No! I do not want that! I want to flee the force of grief, not feel it.” I want to flee the cross, because if I get too close, I’ll be crucifed too.

Sometimes the weight of a lifetime’s suffering is suffocating. At times I believe I have “earned” the right to escape it. That because I have had some crosses for so long, I “ought” to be able to put them down and walk away.

I have carried, for over 20 years, the cross of watching, as a scared six year old girl, my mother dying in a hospital. I have been carrying the cross of a father who chose drugs over me, and who abandoned me at age 12. I carry the cross of diabetes, sub-fertility, and the loss of a child.

My arms are tired. My soul is even more exhausted.

To be certain, there have been times of tremendous joy. There always are. But they are, inevitably, just breaks. As Kimberly Hahn said in her talk at the conference, “If you aren’t in the midst of suffering, it’s a lull.”

She was so right. I had forgotten, you see. After we lost our first baby, it took us 14 months to conceive again. During the first year or so of our daughter’s life, I had let myself believe that I was “normal”. That things would be looking up from here on out. Surely we would all be healthy, happy, and the babies would flow freely? I mean, truly, hadn’t I met the quota for one lifetime’s worth of suffering?

But that’s not how it works, even when we beg, wish, and pray that it would. The truth is, we will never be able to understand suffering, and we will never fully escape it. Why people suffer, how they suffer, why some seem to suffer so much more than others. These are mysteries which, sadly for us, live up to their name.

We may never understand why we suffer in the ways we do, and in those moments, to paraphrase a friend much wiser than I, we beat the heads of our humanity against the wall of God’s divinity. As nearly every married woman around me announces pregnancy, after pregnancy, after pregnancy, some not even happy to be expecting, while I weep over cycles come and gone, I bang the head of my humanity against the wall of God’s divinity.

Why?

The question hangs in the air like an accusation. Sometimes it is.

But on Saturday morning, I saw a sliver of the truth.

“Oh Mother, fount of love, let me feel the force of your grief.”

Feel. Not understand. My intellecutal understanding of my personal suffering is not a condition of God’s using it to change my heart and form me into the person he wants me to be. But my experiencing it is. When we let the suffering in, we let our hearts be broken rather than turned to stone. The only way to feel the full force of our grief, as well as Our Lady’s, is to stop looking for the escape hatch. To finally stop running from the cross. From my cross, and yours. To be willing to stand weeping, feeling the full weight of sorrow.

“The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use for it.” – Simone Weil

Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.