Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Sins of Elsa

I was late seeing the recent Disney smash Frozen.  The older I get, the less likely I am to rush to a theater to see even a film I want to see (I can wait for Netflix), and of late I've been ambivalent about Disney productions.  The technical artistry of things like Pixar's digital animation has been impressive, but their stories have never strayed far from the formulaic.  They even have seemed to recognize this, with works like The Incredibles and Enchanted gently (or not-so-gently) sending up aspects of the cultural legendary framework which Disney has milked so effectively.

But when some of my kids whose judgement I respect mentioned that they liked Frozen, I took Ellen to see it.  And then we went to see it again the next week, and again when another one of my kids came up for the weekend.  I think this set a record for me, and certainly for Ellen and me seeing a movie more than once in a theater.  Like millions of other, I love the movie, and for one surpassing reason: the story.  As a storyteller myself, that's what I look for and appreciate the most of any movie.  Acting mastery, superb direction, special effects – all of these are a distant second to the story itself.  And in Frozen, the story was the core of it.

I heartily commend both the screenwriters and the staff poets (i.e. the songwriters) on their cooperative effort in writing a truly original story that was masterfully implemented.  I gather (from one of the after-the-fact did-you-know snippets that emerge) that the story was proceeding along more formulaic lines until the screenwriters heard one of the songs – the now-iconic Let It Go – which changed their perception of the character of Elsa and thus the trajectory of the tale.  The result was a sharp break from the stereotypes of the past, and a story that resonated with millions because of the complex and sympathetic characters.

Though the central character is Princess Anna, a close second is her sister Elsa, the one with the mysterious magic.  The main tension line of the story originates when they are children, and in a careless moment of play Elsa accidentally injures Anna with her nascent powers.  Though Anna is healed of the injury, the event is very traumatic for Elsa, causing her to fear the expression of her magic and withdraw from interaction out of fear of exposure, and of harming others.  This withdrawal of her beloved sister mystifies and hurts little Anna, as poignantly expressed in the opening song, Do You Want to Build a Snowman?

The story's crisis unfolds after the girls are grown (and have lost their parents in a tragic accident), on Elsa's coronation day.  Anna loves her sister, but there's ambivalence due to Elsa's never-explained relational distancing.  Elsa is frightened by the public presence required of her new position, but resolves to step into it out of a stern sense of duty.  It's clear that she's accepting the crown under duress, and is willing to squelch her personal preferences in order to fulfill her responsibilities.  But things fly apart when the long-suppressed emotional fault line between the girls emerges at the coronation party, and Elsa's powers are inadvertently unleashed.  Terrified that her secret has been exposed and that she might endanger others, Elsa escapes into the mountains, not realizing that she has brought about the very thing she is seeking to avoid: her land is gripped by a devastating winter even as she flees.  The rest of the story revolves around Anna seeking her sister to rectify this situation, forcing them to face some of the difficulties of their relationship.  The drama heightens when Anna is inadvertently and lethally cursed by her sister, the resolution of which ultimately exposes a secret villain, reveals the True Love (with the help of a reindeer), and forces Anna to make a desperate choice between self-preservation and protection of Elsa.

Though the story has formulaic elements (what story doesn't?), I'm convinced that a good part of its appeal is that it focuses on sibling reconciliation, and that even the “villainess” Elsa is a sympathetic and nuanced character.  She isn't portrayed as a “bad person” (to use the meaningless cultural idiom), in the sense that Syndrome or Scar are “bad people”.  It's clear that she means well, and even her relational isolation is undertaken out of concern for others.  But the film masterfully portrays how she is in the grip of deep fear, and ultimately the story's deepest problems stem from this.

Much of the complexity of the tale can be understood through the scene Let It Go, which will surely survive as one of the masterpiece scenes of Disney movies, possibly of all movies.  The orchestration is beautiful, the vocals by the inimitable Idina Menzel are flawless, and the animation is unparalleled.  The scene is a visual and aural feast that sticks in the mind and imagination.  (If you haven't seen it, you can catch it here.)  This soaring anthem to autonomous individualism does reflect much of our cultural attitudes, and has come under some criticism for that (including such lines as “No right, no wrong, no rules for me!”)  If that were the only moral lesson of the film, that critique would be more justified.  But in the course of the tale the storytellers do a wonderful job of placing Elsa's “liberation” in the full context of her life and relationships, showing that autonomy is only the illusion of liberation, but that love and courage are the foundation for true freedom.

They also show something which vindicates some things I've been learning over the past few years: that fear can give rise to sin.  Many of us have an adolescent understanding of sin, thinking that only really “bad people” (like Syndrome or Scar) actually sin.  The rest of us may be misunderstood, or make mistakes, or have bad days, but because we're “not bad people”, we don't truly sin because we don't mean to sin.  Yet here we have Elsa, who is living a life steeped in fear.  I'm convinced that's one of the reasons so many identify with her – existential fear is part of the human condition, and especially part of our post-modern culture.  But Elsa sins, sometimes severely, not out of raw malice but out of fear.

Let me give two examples.  Admittedly, Elsa's inadvertent freezing of her country doesn't qualify, because she didn't know that she did it, and is dismayed when she learns of it.  Even her freezing of Anna's heart, though tragic, was done by an accidental unleashing of powers Elsa was still learning to control.  But when Elsa creates a snow monster to eject her sister and companions from her presence, that's a deliberate, conscious misuse of her powers.  She creates this being to do her dirty work because she doesn't want to do it herself.  How well this portrays the manner in which we fearful humans surround ourselves with things to distance ourselves from those around us, enabling us to dismiss and deprecate at a distance.  We don't have to make a hard decision, we can always hide behind our policies and practices and habits.  We aren't sinning, we're just being consistent. (“I never give money to those kind of street people – you never know how they're going to use it.”)  We think that we have moral distance from our actions or inactions because we aren't directly performing them, just as Elsa undoubtedly didn't think she was the one who chased her sister down a mountain and off a cliff.  She just made a monster to protect herself – in other words, out of fear.  This makes me wonder how many “monsters” I have made out of my fear, and what sins I have indirectly committed through them.

Another example is a subtle one: the sin of dereliction.  In the middle of Elsa's declaration of personal autonomy, Let It Go, she pulls the newly-placed crown from her head, glances at it with contempt, and casts it aside while singing, “ I'm never going back / the past is in the past.”  The modern mind, valuing personal autonomy above all and viewing positions of political power strictly in terms of privilege, sees this as an unmitigated good: Elsa is doing what “her heart tells her” (i.e. what she feels like doing at the moment), and if she gives up an exalted role in the meantime, what does that matter?  In fact, it could even be interpreted as a noble act, the sacrifice of privilege for the sake of self-expression.

But this ignores corporate responsibility.  A crown cast aside on the ground is a much worse insult to a kingdom than a flag burned, and when it's the sovereign who does the casting, the offense is even more severe.  By this impulsive action, Elsa was expressing contempt for her people, her lineage, and ultimately herself.  The wise King Lune of Archenland would have some things to say to young Elsa regarding her responsibilities:

“The king's under the law, for it's the law that makes him king.  Hast no more power to start away from thy crown than any sentry from his post.”  (C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy)

The crown Queen Elsa wears is both privilege and burden, just as our roles as fathers or legislators or managers are both privilege and burden.  If we abdicate those roles, even from a mistaken sense of humility, we sin against those to whom we are responsible.  We also open the way for the unqualified and undesirable to step in where we stepped out.  In an ironic (and unintentional, I'm sure) twist, an afterscene that appears late in the credits shows the snow monster which Elsa created wandering around the shattered ruins of her abandoned ice palace.  He finds the crown which she so carelessly cast aside and places it on his own head.  This image is intended to be humorous, but it has a dark undertone of truth: if we do not fulfill our roles faithfully, others will – perhaps even the constructs we created to distance ourselves from our moral responsibility.

The film does a good job of resolving many of these moral quandaries, but you have to consider the whole story, not just one slice of it.  As with all good stories, there is much to be learned from it, for those willing to learn.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Ceremony of Innocence

(Again, it's been a while since I've posted here, but life's been busy.  Since my last entry I've married off another of my children and written, edited, and submitted another novel.  Between all that and working for a living, there hasn't been much time for blogging.  But I finally got around to a review of Ceremony of Innocence, a recent novel from Ignatius.  Hopefully it won't be as long until my next post.)

For my birthday I received a copy of the recently released Ceremony of Innocence by Dorothy Cummings McLean. I'd read the synopses and was intrigued, but wanted to find out just where the author went with all those elements in her debut novel. I was pleased by the quality of the writing – the story drew me in easily and engaged me in the plot and characters. This is important, because if “Catholic” authors are going to escape the “Catholic literature ghetto” (you know – that place where people buy “Catholic works” in order to support the authors, not because they necessarily enjoy the stories), then first and foremost the authors need to be high quality artists. If this is what McLean can do in her first novel, I have high hopes for her later efforts.
The story takes place in and around Frankfurt, Germany in 2008. The protagonist is Catriona McLelland, a woman in her 30s who is Canadian by birth but was raised in Scotland and now works as a field reporter. (Though Catriona isn't an example of the author writing herself into her own story, it seems clear that Miss McLean is drawing on her own experience as a foreign journalist to flesh out her characters.) “Cat”, as she is known, lives the life of a modern urban professional. She is divorced and awaiting word on her annulment, lives with her decade-younger university student boyfriend, and spends time in clubs leveraging her low-level celebrity status to flit about the edges of the privileged class of the wealthy and noble.
McLean paints a picture of postmodern, post-Christian European culture that is gritty, dingy, and a little depressing. Cat herself is no heroine – she is a “tribal” Catholic who knows but does not live by the tenets of her faith. She cannot claim ignorance. She has a doctorate, understands the subtleties and nuances of the Faith, works for a Catholic news agency, and writes “spiritual” books on the side. But despite this knowledge, her life far more reflects the values of the world in which she lives than the ideals of the Kingdom of God. She's casual about her occasional heavy drinking and drug use as well as her concubinage with her boyfriend . McLean handles the character well. Because the story is told from Cat's perspective in the first person, the reader is naturally sympathetic. But as the plot unfolds, one gets a better picture of Catriona – her condescending treatment of her boyfriend, her dalliance with the amoral “butterfly set”, the implicit cynicism of her double life as a spiritual and religion writer who lives in such moral confusion. I found myself sympathetic to Cat in the fullest sense, as uneasy and ambivalent about her identity and behaviour as I can imagine such a person would be herself.
The plot centers around the entry of Suzy into Cat's settled existence. Suzy is an idealistic young westerner who also hails from Canada, which in her mind gives her a natural relationship with Cat. Suzy has decided political opinions as well as (eventually) an eye on Cat's boyfriend. Out of respect for their friendship, Suzy is above board with Cat about this attraction, which introduces tension into their relationship but does not end it. The jaded, sophisticated Cat initially views Suzy as a dilettante, a child with a cause and a credit card. But as the story unfolds and they are thrown together in some very unusual circumstances, hints of deeper and more disturbing things begin to surface. I won't give away any critical details, but suffice it to say that it turns out that Suzy is involved in some ugly stuff and comes to a bad end (something that is known from the opening pages – the driving question of the book is at whose hands?) The most compelling part of the story is watching the moral dilemma in which Cat finds herself as she struggles with the disturbing knowledge she gains as the tale unfolds. This tension is particularly acute when Cat's boyfriend leaves her for Suzy – a development that has almost nothing to do with Suzy's allure and everything to do with Cat's waffling and duplicitous treatment of him.
As I pondered the story and its intricacies, one theme that became increasingly clear was how Cat was the mother of Suzy. Not literally, of course – the two women were only about 10 years apart in age – but philosophically. There will always be high-minded crusaders with young heads on their young shoulders, but ideally they would be assisted by wiser elders who, if they haven't always walked paths of righteousness, at least gained wisdom from the lessons learned when they didn't. Cat walks in neither righteousness nor wisdom, and thus can provide neither good guidance nor good example when Suzy appears, searching for a life of high ideals and stringent standards, a cause to live up to and sacrifice for. When she looked at Catholics like Catriona, she saw nothing of that, and thus looked elsewhere. If Cat and those like her had been living a vibrant and dynamic faith, people like Suzy might have an alternative to dangerous places where error is taught.
Even though this type of story isn't my first choice to read, I found Ceremony of Innocence a good novel, and hope to see more from Miss McLean in years to come. One bit of technical advice I might offer: the story is told in a flashback mode that gets a little confusing at times. It opens in the immediate aftermath of some dramatic developments, and then goes back to fill in the background of how matters came to this point. However, this flicking back and forth between the “current” situation and the “past” that explains it happens at several points in the story, and I struggled at times to figure out just what “present” I was in. I understand this technique, having used it myself, but with a story of this length and complexity it proved a little clumsy. Perhaps a more chronologically linear storyline would help the next work – either that, or clearer delineations between what time the reader is in. But this is not a showstopper, and those who love thrillers set in exotic locations and filled with dark secrets will not be disappointed by Dorothy McLean.
Ceremony of Innocence by Dorothy Cummings McLean, 2013 Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-1-58617-731-7

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Giving Away

Again, my long neglect of this blog has not so much been because I have forsaken writing, but because my writing energies have been focused along more creative lines. Hopefully you all will have a chance to appreciate those energies in due time; in the meantime, here are some thoughts on developments in our lives:

I recently had the opportunity to do something that I'm not going to have many opportunities to do: walk a lovely daughter down the aisle at her wedding. This old custom, known as “giving away”, raises hackles in some quarters, who automatically paint it as a degrading vestige of patriarchy, with the woman being treated like property to be handed off from one Domineering Male to another.

Fortunately, the participants and attendees at this wedding were too well-educated to buy into such simplistic interpretations, but the term offers a good opportunity to meditate on the nature and manners of love. Of course, my daughter was never “mine” in a proprietary sense, even when she was a newborn. She hasn't even been “mine” in a custodial sense for many years, since she eased into a mature and personal relationship to her True Father. She's lived on her own for quite some time, traveled further and studied more than I have, made courageous and costly decisions, and accepted responsibility for her own life. Of course I've supported her as I could, offering support and sympathy and feeble advice, but I've by no means directed her life – she's made her own decisions.

Still and all, I think there's an important lesson behind the custom of “giving away”, and I could hardly find a better living example of it than the wedding itself. In all her travels and studies, my daughter has made many friends – not just casual acquaintances, but serious heart companions. She has poured herself out in love to those she meets, at times at great personal cost. She has given herself away in love, because love is the most important thing on earth.

At the wedding we saw some of that coming back around. One of the guests was a friend of my daughter's who had gone through some turbulent times in her life some years before. My daughter helped her through those times – I know because my daughter would retreat to her room for long, supportive phone conversations. That friend made it through those times into a wonderful marriage to a good man, without damaging any family relationships in the process. So when it came time for my daughter's special celebration, this friend showed up and essentially made herself a personal servant of my daughter and our whole family – serving in any way necessary without regard for dignity or convenience. Another dear friend was there with her loving husband and wonderful little baby boy. I know that my daughter had helped both the friend and her husband during some difficult years before their marriage – not with professional counsel, but with a steadfast, loving presence. I can't say for sure, but my guess is that my daughter's love was a critical component in that family forming and staying together. They were there to support and embrace my daughter as she began her married life.

These are but two examples of how the love which my daughter had poured out came flowing back to her on that blessed day. The hall was full of people who were there to rejoice with the new couple and, in a small way, pour back the love that they had poured out in their time (I'm sure it was equally true of my new son-in-law, but I don't know his stories as well.) My daughter had given herself away over the years, given in love in response to her Heavenly Father's promptings, and now love was given back to her.

So, what am I saying? That love is a prudent investment because it always has a good ROI? That's a self-contradictory attitude – something that is done in a calculating manner, trying to evaluate the “return”, is something other than love. Love can only be freely given by independent agents who seek the good of another – anything less fall short of true love. Sometimes we get a chance to perceive the fruit of our love, sometimes we don't. My daughter saw some of it on her wedding day (and that was a lot!), but I imagine that much more wasn't manifested there due to simple practicalities – people couldn't make it, etc. But in time, all the love she has poured out will come pouring back to her, as it does for all of us.

In that sense, all acts of love are “giving away”. I didn't walk down that aisle to “give away” my daughter as one would give away an object. What I was “giving away” was love – in this case the loving person my daughter had become, freely and joyfully granted into the capable hands of her new husband, who will pour himself out in love for her good. It was a symbolic act, but one that exemplifies the very nature of love.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Little Perspective


For the last 15 years or so, this weekend – just around the last weekend in January – has been the one where Ellen and I headed off for our much-anticipated winter getaway weekend at a nearby resort town. The town has a busy summer season but both pace and prices reduce significantly in the wintertime, and it's not far away so travel isn't a big issue. We started this when all the kids were still at home but had gotten old enough to leave, and the pace of parenting was nonstop. We started heading off for just a weekend, but the time proved so therapeutic that we started extending our stay until we were heading over for five days.
It's hard to convey just how much this time has meant to us. To have just a few days to ourselves, without any time pressure, was like a renewal for us and for our marriage. To be free from the relentless, 24/7, always-on-call responsibility of parenthood was such a relief that we took to calling the time “depressurization”. One of the reasons we extended the weekend was that we found that it took a full day or so after we got there just to slow down. We'd so look forward to this that, at random times throughout the year (particularly if the pressures were mounting), we'd look at each other and say “five” or “nine” - that being the number of months until our getaway. It never failed to elicit a smile and a rush of calm.
This year, though, we weren't able to make it. We had to call and cancel our reservation. The finances just wouldn't bear the cost. Now, it would be easy to get all caught up in the disappointment of this, and mope about grieving over what we might be doing if we'd been able to have our winter getaway, etc. But there are a few things different this time. One is that the pace of our ordinary life has slowed considerably. All the kids are really, truly out of the house, so usually it's just us living at a more sedate pace. Sure, we appreciate the chance for a responsibility-free long weekend, but we hardly need it in the same way we did ten years ago.
But another thing happened during the Christmas season. My son and daughter were on their way across our state in the wintry weather, hit a slushy ramp, and rolled the car. Thankfully, they were both securely strapped in and walked away with nothing worse than bumps and scrapes, but the event was an ugly shock for us all, and especially for my son who had to go through the hassle of replacing his totaled car.
Obviously, that's the sort of thing that makes you stop and think about what's important in your life. Having your children came frighteningly close to major injury or death sweeps the trivial things to the fringes in a big hurry. We celebrated our “all-together” Christmas – which was what they were coming for – with extra appreciation for the fragility of life and the preciousness of loving relationships. I've spent a lot of time being extra thankful to the Lord for sparing our children.
I'm not suggesting for a moment that I think there was some kind of cosmic trade-off here, that somehow the “price” of our children's protection was our foregoing our getaway weekend. That's not how God works. What I am saying is that life-rattling events cause you to step back from situations you're too close to and look at them in the broader context. Sure, a decade and a half of special couple time is a great record, and would be a wonderful one to continue. But nothing dire is going to happen if it's missed for a year. Having a child seriously injured or killed in an automobile accident – now that would be dire.
At this point, I've no idea what the future holds. Maybe we'll pick up again next year (when I canceled the reservation, I made one for next January), and this will just be the “year we missed”. Maybe we'll be able to only do it sporadically in years to come. Maybe we'll never have another such weekend, because the time for them in our lives has passed. Whatever the outcome, it's in God's hands, and I'm much more comfortable leaving it there. Special things like getaway weekends are wonderful gifts, but He has so many other blessings, everyday blessings that we tend to take for granted and even forget are blessings.
Sometimes we just need something to remind us of them.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Limits of Natural Compatibility


I've been a little remiss in blog posting lately, primarily because I've been doing creative writing, and that always takes first priority. However, there have been a few topics kicking around my brain of late, and I thought I'd quickly share one of the more startling ones.

One of my favorite devotional works is one I just picked up in the past couple years: The Gift of Faith, by Fr. Tadeusz Dajczer. It's a wonderful work, at once mystical and practical, profound yet very readable. I just finished by fourth time through it, and every time I glean something new and useful. I can tell the work is going to be in my regular devotional cycle for years.

This time I caught something that had slipped by me before – I may have noticed it, but the import escaped me. Writing with wisdom and insight, Fr. Dajczer addresses many aspects of the spiritual life, and devotes an entire section to The Actualization of Faith. In it he has a subsection on The Role of Feelings, wherein he makes an amazing statement, which I'll quote:

It could happen, that in a marriage the couple is well matched, like two pieces of a split brick, which fit perfectly when put together. In the light of faith, this is not an ideal situation, because this is only a perfectly natural harmony positive feeling. This is not yet Christian love, the agape love, which has to be worked at.” (p. 210, emphasis added)

Imagine that! This wise and Godly counselor, with decades of experience, thinks a situation of what our culture would call “high compatibility” is, in fact, less than ideal. Not that he thinks it impossible, but he cautions that it is not as simple as it would appear. He goes on to explain why:

Every community of people, whether in marriage, friendship, or in any group, if solely based on natural bonds, does not have much chance of survival. Someday, sooner or later, it either has to break down or attain a higher level of existence...your gift of self increases to the extent of the lack of natural bonds. How good it is that crises occur among us, that there are sometimes misunderstandings in marriage, that children can sometimes fight among themselves because they do not get along with each other. These are the cracks, the fissures, which enable the birth or deepening of supernatural bonds and supernatural love. It is this very love, which is the work of Christ, which is everlasting if allowed to develop (pp 210-211, emphasis in original)

Thus he makes clear that it isn't that a high level of natural compatibility is automatically a problem, but that it makes it more difficult to move to that higher level of loving because the partners are used to relying on that natural compatibility to make things easy.

Clearly this flies in the face of the cultural wisdom, which holds that the higher the compatibility, the better the match. Some modern thinker, reading Fr. Dajczer's insights, might snidely respond, “Well, what then? Should we go out and marry someone we can't stand, just to increase our growth in holiness?” Clearly that's not what Fr. Dajczer is suggesting. What he is pointing out is that when there is a high degree of natural compatibility, then the couple tends to coast on that for a long time. But the time will come when that will run out, and the spouses realize that they're living with a fallen human being with whom they have to live – and for whom they have to die, because dying to self is what true love requires.

Here, I think, is when the crisis comes. For couples with high natural compatibility, the shock is more severe and the adjustment greater when the need arises. “What? You've never asked this of me before! Why is this relationship suddenly so costly?” The wise know that the answer is that relationships of true love are always costly, and always require death to self. The prevailing cultural mythology is that the more “compatible” the parties, the less stress the relationship will pose, and the more gratifying it will be for both parties.

Ellen and I know this firsthand. We got married because we were told to, but if anyone had given us one of those personality compatibility tests before we wed, they might have waved us off. There were too many points of friction, too much potential for confusion and mixed communications – as we discovered shortly after our wedding. I have personality quirks and coping mechanisms that push Ellen's emotional buttons; she has ways of dealing with things that tax me. We misunderstand, miscommunicate, and frustrate each other. Our entire marriage has been a learning experience in how to express things, what topics to avoid, and when to set our teeth and face a difficult matter. It's called for a lot of patience and forgiveness and prayer and understanding.

On the other hand, we knew another couple who got married at about the same time we did. If someone were handing out compatibility prizes, they surely would have gotten one. They were affectionate, always in agreement, always going out of their way for each other – a model, it would seem, of natural compatibility. And – you guessed it – they're the ones who got divorced. Of course it was a complex situation, but knowing a bit about it, it seems to me that Fr. Dajczer's description at least partially fit that couple. Ellen and I were grappling with difficulties from our first weeks of marriage; they seemed to coast along on a cloud of matrimonial bliss. But in the end, we were the ones whose marriage lasted, because as Fr. Dajczer points out, we had to let our relationship be moved to a higher level.

I say this all in the very shadow of my third daughter's recent engagement. Needless to say, we're thrilled for them both. A fine young man asked for her hand, and they've been consciously exploring moving toward marriage for some time. And yes, they seem to have a high degree of natural compatibility*. But I'm not concerned for them (any more than the usual) because I know they will heed Fr. Dajczer's advice. Whether their natural compatibility is high or low, they'll walk into the permanent bond of marriage with both eyes open, knowing that the day will come when they'll be pushed to a place that will outstrip the ability of natural compatibility to cope. Then they'll have to turn to their Heavenly Father for the strength to continue together.

And He, as always, will provide it.

*Allowing for the fact that he's from Texas.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

In the aftermath


Yes, I have done a lot of thinking and praying about the last election. I'm not going to attempt to rehash many of the observations that have been made elsewhere, some of which were masterful. I'm simply going to share my thoughts and perceptions, and reflect on what I think this means for us as a nation.

Of course, I was tremendously disappointed by the presidential election results. I put effort into every election, but in this case I had hope that we'd see some real change, so I worked (and prayed, and fasted) very hard. I hoped that after four years of this country being on the disastrous course we've followed would have awakened many of my fellow citizens to what was really happening. Ellen and I both had a sense (for what that's worth) that in this election, we as a nation were being given a choice. In past elections we've sensed that we were being spared, or that we'd been given over, but this time we both sensed that this election was truly in the hands of us as citizens.

If that perception was accurate, then I got my answer: a slim but critical majority of voters chose to be subjects rather than citizens. We chose the Leviathan State over the Free Republic, and as Fr. Schall and many others observe, we will never pass this way again. We're beyond the tipping point. It's not a question of whether Republicans will ever again gain ascendancy, because despite the thinking of the brainwashed chattering class, it isn't about political parties or power. It's about fundamental identity.

As I struggled with my grief, the Lord helped me see a couple of things that didn't necessarily make things easier, but helped bring needed perspective. One had to do with the election itself. Given that I'd put such effort into working for pro-life candidates – writing, speaking, organizing, praying, etc. – it was understandable that I'd see the election as a decision point, where we as Americans could choose one way or another, and the outcome of that decision could be influenced. But the Lord, from the perspective of His omnipotence, helped me see that it was in one sense more of an indication than a decision. In other words, the decision had long been made in the hearts and minds of Americans, and the election results simply reflected that decision. In that sense, the results were more like test results than they were like the outcome of a choice. This does not mean we are not responsible for the choices we made, but it helped me see that the choices had already been made long before in many other contexts, and the ballots merely reflected those. (It was also comforting to me, because in my own county all but one pro-life candidate won, including the presidential candidate. My efforts were not completely in vain, for I'm sure I had some influence on my immediate area.)

Another thing the Lord helped me see, and this was harder, was that part of my own motive for working so hard was in hopes of making my task easier. Of course, I have to qualify this by making clear that I don't think the whole affair was about me, and of course the Lord would prefer to have a government run by those who respect all human life, families, religious freedom, etc. But at least part of my motivation was hoping that a less hostile regime would enable me to take it a little easier, be a little less vigilant, perhaps kick back and relax a little. But the election makes it clear that there will be no reprieve; in fact, we can count on a more intense struggle in the days to come. So my hope of a little inline vacation goes by the boards – looks like I'll have to keep growing up after all.

But a perspective shift is helpful, since disappointment rises out of the gap between what we expect and what we get. It's been clear to me for some time, and is now clearer than ever, that my citizenship is not of this world. No, I'm not planning to move to a cabin in the woods and totally withdraw from social and political involvement. As a Catholic who takes my pro-life and pro-family responsibilities seriously, I can't do that. But I will recognize that my country has become, and will become increasingly, hostile to those things. The change has already happened, and will accelerate in the days to come. I need to adjust my expectations and actions accordingly.

I'm writing this on Veteran's Day, when there is a good amount of appreciative sentiment expressed toward us veterans for our sacrifices for the country. This is fine, as are such things as July 4th celebrations, but increasingly these will become expressions of nothing more than sentiment. The substance of what was sacrificed will continue to be gutted until there is nothing left but bread and circuses. Students of history know that this decline is as inevitable as the sunset – true freedom and self-governance is an ideal that rarely lasts more than a few generations under the best of circumstances. I know that I will not die in the same land I was born in, and that this is true even if I die tomorrow. I will fight a rearguard action, but much of my focus will be preparing my grandchildren for the world they will inherit. It will be different, and much harder for them, especially if they seek to live out the Gospel with integrity. But it will be better than living as subservient minions of the Leviathan state.

Increasingly the words spoken by a virtually unknown Fr. Joseph Ratzinger back in 1969 ring true:

The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members....
It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek . . . The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution – when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain . . . But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already with Gobel, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Terrapin


I recently had occasion to read Tom Doran's second venture into publication, Terrapin. I reviewed his first work, Toward the Gleam, in May 2011, and found it overall a good read – though even Doran himself admits the premise a little fantastic. Gleam is an example of a sub-genre which I call “Inklings fan-fiction”, which may not appeal to all.

Fortunately, with Terrapin Doran moves into what is more clearly familiar territory for him – the mystery – and it is a wise move. First off, it's a great story, especially if you're a mystery fan. Mysteries aren't my first choice of genre, but I can appreciate a decent one. My wife is far more of a mystery aficionado, and she enjoyed it as a story, ranking at the upper end of well written mysteries – maybe not quite Christie or Sayers, but certainly well above average. Doran seems to be getting more comfortable behind his typewriter.

The book is really two stories: one a current-day murder mystery involving a group of men who are lifelong friends, and the other about the growing-up years of those same friends in Terrapin Township, Michigan during the late 1970s. Apparently this flashback motif is not uncommon in mysteries, with the earlier portion of the tale providing backstory for the modern portion. I must admit that at times I thought the growing up portion dragged a bit, but it was well written, with sympathetic characters, and it did move steadily toward its conclusion.

Rather than provide a plot synopsis, I encourage readers to try Terrapin for themselves. If my wife's reaction is any indicator, lovers of mysteries will at least appreciate, if not richly enjoy, the book. What I want to address is a question that will undoubtedly occur to readers who know the publisher, Ignatius Press, as a leading name in Catholic publishing. When they finish Terrapin, they may find themselves asking, “What was so 'Catholic' about that?” Those who expect “Catholic” fiction to involve priests, or Vatican intrigues, or even a strong religious theme, may be disappointed. Aside from some passing mentions of attending church, the only thing approaching a religious “event” occurs on the final page, and even then it isn't much. What is a publisher like Ignatius doing publishing ordinary mysteries?

Herein lies the strength of Terrapin, and I'm grateful that Ignatius took the risk of publishing it. C.S. Lewis and others pointed out that the key to rebuilding a Christian culture was not inserting explicitly Christian themes into non-religious arenas such as entertainment and politics, but that devout Christians should engage these arenas as part of their everyday work, bringing their Christian world view to bear on the problems and challenges found there. After all, a good portion of the problems arising from places like the entertainment industry is that those working there are operating out of a non-Christian mindset (as I point out.) If Christian artists are to reclaim the culture, they must do it as good artists expressing their Christian outlook through their art.

This is what Doran pulls off with subtlety and skill. His protagonist, Dennis, is what our culture would consider a “decent fellow”, but there's nothing explicitly religious about him. Turns out that he and his band of friends, who are more regular guys, have a mischievous history with an ominously dark edge. The growing-up part of the tale shows them moving from simple pranks to some deeds that are outright harmful. Dennis himself comes across as something like moral Play-Dough: his character isn't wicked or vindictive, but he can be pressured into things, and seems to lack a firm moral compass.

This is not for lack of guidance. His widowed father, identified only as TA, is the quiet presence who stands in the background of the entire story – not just the growing up portion, but the current-day setting, by which time he's deceased. TA is an understated character, seemingly to the point of insignificance, but as the complex tale unfolds, it becomes clear that he's the person around whom the whole tale revolves. In a sense, the story is about Dennis remembering that he's TA's son – a fact which he'd essentially forgotten.

From the outset it was clear to me that TA was important, and I was almost frustrated by how quietly he was played. He seemed almost passive in the face of Dennis' increasingly destructive shenanigans, providing quiet suggestions and a calm presence rather than firm direction and severe consequences. Perhaps that was just the father in me responding (“If that had been my son, I'd have...”), but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that TA's handling of his son was neither negligence nor incompetence.

For one thing, the flashback portion of the story opens when Dennis is in his early teens, moving into an age when a father's direct hand doesn't weigh as heavily as it does in younger years. The youngster's attention is focused outward, more to friends and other influences, and a wise father will be more subtle in his attempts to influence behavior.

Furthermore, there is a fault line in the father-son relationship: the tragic accident that killed TA's wife and other son some years before. This not only leaves the home wounded and both parties emotionally damaged, but causes friction between TA and Dennis over the question of resolution. The fatal accident was a hit-and-run, and Dennis becomes convinced that more could have done to seek out the perpetrator and bring him to justice. TA is convinced that there would be no purpose to such an effort; that forgiving and moving on is the best course. This difference between them is more important than it first seems (in more ways than one), and the rift becomes a root of estrangement between the young Dennis and his father.

As the story unfolds and Dennis learns more about his past, it becomes clear that in their working-class neighborhood in Terrapin Township, TA was more than just his father. He counseled his neighbors, consoled the grieving, welcomed the stranger, corrected the errant, and even gracefully dealt with the improper advances of a tormented woman. This blue-collar man, bereaved and struggling with his own son, was the yeast that leavened his neighborhood, the quiet light that shone in the gathering moral darkness in which he lived. He didn't preach (not even to his son), but simply was the presence of Christ.

I believe this is the genius of the story, because it is so true to life. Very few of us are called to share our faith by preaching to big audiences, or writing for wide readerships, or broadcasting from coast to coast. But all of us are called to be the salt and light of Christ right where we are, with the people we rub elbows with in our daily lives. We are called to “preach” to them by being Christ to them, not just with niceness and platitudes but with sacrifice, suffering right beside them when it would be much easier just to sign a Hallmark card and leave it at the door. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this is the sort of ministering TA did to all who came across his path, if they would accept it.

Here is another point of subtle genius: at first blush, it seems that Dennis has rejected his heritage. He's successful in the worldly sense, being a tenured professor at a major university with a home in a nice neighborhood and all the trappings, but there's little in his life that reflects the ideals of his father. Yet that is part of the point: Dennis “shallowed out”. For all his learning and temporal success, he doesn't have the depth of his blue-collar father. Where TA was a quiet but positive influence in the lives of those around him, Dennis just has annual reunions with the friends of his youth. His marriage is sterile, his career mundane. Judging from Dennis, one could conclude that TA failed in his childraising, but it becomes clear that it was Dennis who walked away from what was offered him.

Terrapin is a complex and at times uncomfortable story. There are no quick fixes, no tidy resolutions, no magical redemptions. There is progress, but there are also struggles and misunderstandings and setbacks. But again, this is true to life. The resolution of the story is a sharp lesson to Dennis that TA was very right about some crucial things, but how much Dennis will be changed by that lesson is left unanswered. There are glimmers of hope, but that's all the reader is given. In that sense, there is much in Terrapin that many of us can relate to.

Monday, October 29, 2012

I wonder


I remember on September 11th, 2001, when the planes slammed into the Towers and the Pentagon.

I wondered.

Yes, it was the deliberate choice of sinful men to do an evil deed, and an act of war. But I wondered if there was something more to it. I wondered if it was, perhaps, a warning shot across the bow of our culture, reminding us that the military might in which we put so much trust wasn't as impenetrable as we thought it was. Warning us that it would be prudent to change our course while we still had time.

Of course, I had no way of knowing. But I wondered.

I remember in August of 2003, when a mishap somewhere in a neighboring state deprived a large portion of the country, including our state, of electricity for three days. Yes, it was human error, the failure of an over-stressed and under-maintained electrical grid. But at the time I wondered again if there might not be more to it. I wondered if it was another warning shot across our bow, warning us that the glitzy technology upon which we rely so much was much more fragile than we liked to think it was.

Again, no way of knowing. But I still wondered.

Now the east coast is being smashed by what is being universally called the most brutal storm ever to come ashore. As I write, the storm has yet to make landfall, yet estimates of damage are already in the tens of billions, with the potential for tremendous loss of life. Major population centers like Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York, and Baltimore are going to be severely hit.

Again, I'm wondering. Sure, the storm is a result of impersonal forces like wind and gravity. But in Scripture, we see the Lord using storms (and other natural events like droughts) to work His ways. And here we are facing one of the most critical elections in my lifetime, with the incumbent clearly and consistently aligning himself up against God's law. Over the past four years he has proven that he will do anything – including shut down the Federal government – to keep pouring as much blood of innocent children as possible down Moloch's throat. He has publicly aligned himself with forces seeking to destroy God's definition of marriage and family. He is seeking to strip Christians of the rights to live out their religion in their public life by forcing them to fund sinful activity. He has lied so often, and so casually, that you'd swear it was his native language. In just four years he – and those who write his script – have done so much damage to this country that I wonder if we'll ever recover.

So again, I wonder. I have no way of knowing, but I wonder if this stupendous natural calamity occurring one week before the decisive election might not be another warning shot across our bow. One more huge, dramatic attempt to get our attention, to warn us to change our course, before we sail into catastrophe.

God alone knows that, and He hasn't told me anything yet.

But I still wonder.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

A Twenty Five Year (and counting) Journey


Though I didn't realize it at the time, the autumn of 1987 proved to be a pivotal point in my spiritual journey. It was then that I took a road or embarked on a voyage (however you want to put it) that I'm still traveling to this day. I hope it has meant that I've grown closer to Christ that I otherwise would have. It certainly changed a lot of things.
At that point in my life I was a few years into my career at a technical consulting firm. My third child was less than a year old. I'd been married for just over six years, and allowing for the expectable marital adjustments, we were doing well. We were involved in a little evangelical community where Ellen and I both appreciated the focus on community life and mutual commitment.
But I, personally, was feeling a bit stagnant in my spiritual growth. My early Christian growth had been in the military, with all the accompanying challenges. This had transitioned into the giddy excitement of my early involvement in the evangelical community, which kept me going well into early marriage on enthusiasm and optimism. But as I buckled down to the drudgery of being a husband and father, some of the fun was wearing thin, and I was finding that there wasn't much underneath.
During that period our group of evangelicals was somewhat swept up in the spiritual fad of the moment, which happened to be “signs and wonders”, usually manifested in dramatic healing. Since physical healings were rare, there was a lot of focus on emotional healing, healing of memories, and the like. This led to a lot of introspection and amateur diagnoses of the root causes of personal struggles. I began to wonder whether I needed to get some of that prayer to fix whatever was wrong with me.
It was during that time that I went to a men's conference and heard at least one speaker talk firmly about our need to have deeper faith and closer obedience to God's holy commands. I don't remember exactly who gave the talk, but the real Speaker was the Holy Spirit. I remember carpooling home with a bunch of guys, one of whom was leader of the local prayer team who was going on about the dramatic manifestations they had been seeing during ministry times. I remember mentally shaking my head as he spoke – somebody might need all that, but it wasn't me. Shortly thereafter I wrote in my prayer journal, “I don't need healing – I need faith!” I felt clearly the Lord calling me to deeper dependence upon Him, more listening and more obedience on my part. I started rising very early (something that comes more easily for me than for some), sometimes as early as 3:30am, in order to have plenty of prayer time before my early start for work.
The Lord met me during those quiet hours, when it was just me and my Bible and my prayer journal, alone in the living room with nothing but a candle for illumination. He showed me that I had been seeing myself as a slave, not as His son, and the critical difference that made. He helped me understand how liberating obedience was, and how important it was to trust Him completely, regardless of external circumstances.
It wasn't so much an immediate, dramatic makeover as it was the turning of a corner. Within a year of that time the Lord was speaking very distinctly about trusting Him no matter what I was called to do. Within two years, He had called me back to my Catholic heritage and launched me out on the spiritual challenge of self-employment. (You don't think being self-employed is a spiritual challenge? Try it.) Ellen and I faced the anguish of seeing the evangelical community in which we'd invested so much begin its slow and painful deterioration. We had a few dramatic times in our marriage, but many more years of just trudging along, discharging our responsibilities, being faithful to what we'd been called to. Hopefully we've both grown in faith and helped our children (and others) to do likewise. But through it all I could trace much of the change back to those quiet mornings in the autumn of 1987, when the Lord called me to a deeper walk with Him, and enabled me to follow.
Looking back across the past quarter century, I see that what the Lord was challenging me to was what spiritual directors call abandonment. I've recently finished Fr. DeCaussade's classic Abandonment to Divine Providence, and many of the themes he explains are quite familiar. They've been the foundation for the closer walk with the Lord that I date back to that time.
There have been many significant years in my life, for a wide variety of reasons. 1957 (obviously), 1967, 1975, 1979, 1981, and others all have their meaning. But as important as any of them for my adult walk in Christ has been 1987, which was the year He called me to a deeper and closer walk with Him. It's a path I'm still on, and hope to travel even more faithfully until I reach my journey's end.

Friday, September 07, 2012

A Most Terrible Idol


I'm going to go out on a limb here and submit an entry for consideration as the Greatest Idol of Our Culture. The difficulty about this is that there are so many from which to choose. The usual suspects come immediately to mind: power, sex, wealth, entertainment, and so forth. By comparison my candidate is a “sleeper” - one that may seem at first glance to be a tame, almost innocuous idol. But the longer I live and the more I learn, the more this idol seems to be not only the most subtle and seductive, but also the most pervasive and brutal idol that I can see.
Like most idols of our culture, this one isn't a statue or physical image, but a concept; indeed, almost an imaginative image that's never precisely articulated but lingers in the cultural air, always alluring, always tempting us with what it can never deliver. I'll call this idea The Fulfilled Life. It's the fantasy that if we follow the Right Path (whatever that may be), and make the Right Sacrifices (whatever they are), that our lives will not only be free of problems, but “fulfilled”.
Of course this seems more abstract than bringing the bull before Dagon (or the child before Moloch) to implore that the crops won't fail, or the raiders will stay away, or the wife will conceive, or whatever. It may also seem to be making a mountain of a molehill – after all, haven't people always wanted their lives to be fulfilled? To be happy and content? How can that be so serious?
First: yes, it is more abstract than a tangible offering brought before a visible idol – but that's part of what makes it so dangerous. And yes, people have always wanted happy lives and there's nothing wrong with that. But the vital – and deadly – distinction between the simple desire for contentment and the idol of The Fulfilled Life is that the idol whispers that it can actually provide fulfillment during this life. Not just contentment or happiness, mind you, but fulfillment – the complete satisfaction of our deepest desires.
This is the message that is implied in so many channels of our educational system, promoted in our entertainment media, draped over products to sell them, and even preached from pulpits. It not only lures us with tempting images and ideas, but drives us with fear. What if we miss out? What if we make the wrong decision, or don't plan sufficiently, or spend our money in the wrong place? In short, what if we don't render due worship and sacrifice to the god? We will not be rewarded, and our lives will go unfulfilled.
Consider how we are encouraged to think about our lives: if we do well in school, we'll get to a good college, where we will train for a rewarding career. We may enrich our life with rewarding activities (often sports), and must learn to guard our health (since ill health is such a major hindrance to a Fulfilled Life.) Somewhere along the way (this is vital), we'll meet a Special Someone who will help fulfill us. The very terms for this person, such as “soul mate”, indicate how high the expectations are for this fulfillment. We'll get out of college, perhaps marry the Someone (or perhaps not, these days), and get a Fulfilling Job. Of course, because our Fulfilling Job pays well, we won't have to worry about money, and will be able to do those things that fulfill us. In time we may be further fulfilled by a child or two (probably not more, because then they'd cease to be fulfilling and become a drain on our energy and finances.) We would raise our children to follow fulfilled lives themselves, and in time (this, too, is vital), as a combination of the success of our careers and our prudent financial decisions, we will retire to spend the rest of our days doing fulfilling things in pleasant places, never overshadowed by ill health or other difficulties.
Sound familiar? With slight variations this script is what is sold in our culture as the ideal life. If you attain it, you will be Fulfilled – your life will have meaning. This illusion, this set of whispered promises, is the idol. If you learn the right rituals and make the sacrifices, if you follow The Path and do not stray from it, if you are truly devoted to this ideal above all, you will be rewarded with a Fulfilled Life.
Of course, those of us who try to follow the One True God know (or should) that at the heart of this elaborate illusion is a lie. A fulfilled life on earth is impossible because we were not made to be fulfilled on earth – we were designed for union with God. Our passage through this world is but preparation for that, albeit made more difficult by sin and temptation. But even for those who know this it is hard to resist the clamor of the goods of this world, and the allure of things that present themselves to our senses. For those who know nothing of eternal reward, this world's goods are all they have. If those goods are lost, what is there?
This is part of the reason this idol is so powerful – even deadly. If The Fulfilled Life is not forthcoming, then what are the implications? Am I doomed to an unfulfilled life? What must be done to satisfy the idol? The answer is, almost anything. I personally know of families that have been destroyed, children that have been abandoned, promises that have been broken, and even babies killed at the demand of this idol. If the relationship ceases to be rewarding, or the commitment doesn't deliver the promised satisfaction, or the pregnancy threatens to “ruin your life”, then it must be done away with. Nothing – nothing – may be allowed to hinder the pursuit of the Fulfilled Life. The alternative is unthinkable, therefore no sacrifice is too terrible to consider. If the idol demands it, it must be delivered.
This idol has always been around, but I think it has gained particular power in our time because we have flattened all life to this world. Oh, some pay lip service to “a better world” awaiting us after death, but that has little influence on our daily living. A poet expressed the zeitgeist by encouraging us to “imagine” No hell below us/Above us, only sky, and we have done just that. That puts us under tremendous pressure to pack a lot of living into the short years we have, so it had better be fulfilling living. After all, the Fulfilled Life is out there – the advertisements and talk show hosts and self-help books and educators and politicians all tell us so – so if my life isn't fulfilling, then something's wrong.
Of course, like all idols this one promises what it can never deliver – which only makes those who follow it increasingly desperate as the years tick by, causing them to resort to increasingly desperate measures. Too late do many realize that they have wasted their lives chasing a mirage, and that the fulfillment that they could have had lay buried within the relationships they discarded because they weren't giving sufficient “return” quickly enough. But that is the nature of idols.
I'm not saying this is the only idol of our culture – the Significant Life is a close contender – but it is so powerful that it deserves careful consideration. But what to do about it? I think classic Christian devotion has a path, which the spiritually mature call “detachment”. This is the recognition that the goods of this world are goods – of this world – and need not dominate us. Such classic practices as fasting, withdrawal, chastity, prayer discipline, and worship (especially worship devoid of enthusiasm or consolation) all remind us that we are not intended to be fulfilled in this life. Practicing them robs the idol of its power by not only facing but embracing activities that provide no immediate fulfillment. Of course, to the devoteés of the idol such practices seem not only nonsensical but masochistic. But those who can see beyond the goods of this world know that sometimes choosing to lay them down is the way to open ourselves to receiving greater goods that are not of this world. If Christ is to be believed, that is the path to the truly Fulfilled Life.