Friday, June 27, 2014

What's a Person to Do?

It really isn't my intent to turn this into a book review blog, but I've been reading so many good ones recently that I just have to pass along the good news.

When considering reading even for self-development, the statement, “Hey, why not read a little moral theology?” is rarely heard.  It seems to me that this is partly because works of moral theology and philosophy are rarely “user friendly” - they're typically full of carefully parsed statements, nuanced definitions, and intricate abstractions. As a result moral theologians often end up talking to nobody but each other, because they have a language all their own. In this way they're similar to lawyers, medical experts, and computer technicians.

The difference being that we laymen can ultimately turn a situation over to lawyers, medical experts, and computer techs and say, “Just send me a bill”, thus detaching ourselves from the need to know the gritty details. We can't do that with moral questions, which confront us commonly and can have serious consequences.  This puts us in a bind, because we need guidance in moral matters, especially considering the complex questions that face us these days, but the guidelines often defy easy understanding.

Fortunately, at least on moral theologian has come to our aid. Dr. Mark Latkovic, a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, has written a book called What's a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter.  It is his attempt to make the nuances of moral theology accessible to those of us interested in making prudent decisions with a well-formed conscience.

The book is a slender volume written in an accessible, conversational style, as if you were talking with Dr. Latkovic over coffee.  The format is that of forty questions with moral implications drawn right from modern life.  These are not theoretical abstractions, but concrete questions like “Is it morally okay for me to have a Facebook account?” and “Is it morally justifiable to attend the wedding ceremony of a man and woman who have cohabitated?”  The intent of the chapters isn't just to give specific guidance, but to use the situations as a springboard to explain the principles that should guide us in pondering such decisions.  These aren't simple questions (hopefully “Should I shoplift this item?” won't present much of a moral dilemma for any of us), but are chosen for their complexity and ambiguity.

Dr. Latkovic begins the book with an introduction which he titles “The Ethical Toolbox”. Though this is where you might expect to get lost while the seminary professor lapses into moral theospeak, the section is quite accessible. He defines some terms but never strays far from the basics like the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the Golden Rule.  Most critically he defines what a Catholic conscience is, and what it means to have a well-formed one (hint: it's not what most people think.)  He also reminds us that consideration of moral questions doesn't just involve guidelines, but also virtues – personal strengths within each of us that reflect the character and nature of Christ.

As Dr. Latkovic addresses the forty questions he has chosen, he keeps returning to this duo: moral guidelines and personal virtues.  In nearly every example, he explains the relevant issues in terms of what moral issues should come into play, and what virtues we will need to charitably answer this question.  In this, Dr.  Latkovic moves beyond the “advice columnist” approach to these knotty issues and forces us to grapple with our own weaknesses and sinful predilections.  Let's face it: when faced with some thorny moral dilemma, the usual reason we seek an “advice columnist” answer, be it from an actual advice columnist, or from a coworker at the water cooler, or through our social media outlets, is that we want an easy out. We want someone to assure us that the low-cost option we're considering is right, or that there's some rule we can invoke that will relieve us of responsibility.  We want to avoid difficult or costly outcomes, particularly ones that require us to grow in personal maturity and holiness.

This is not to say that Dr. Latkovic doesn't give some practical, immediately usable advice. For instance, in the chapter addressing the question “Can I read a book or attend a play or watch a movie with risqué parts?”, he tersely reminds us:
Just because we are in the realm of entertainment – broadly defined to include both high and low culture – doesn't mean we are now also in a moral-free zone of behavior where we can do whatever we want. And yes, sorry, that includes our favorite rock bands and rock music of all types. (p. 35)
This is one example of how Dr. Latkovic uses the questions he has chosen to educate his readers on moral principles.  He really does want to provide everyone with ethical tools so that when that forty-first question comes up, they'll know where to turn and what voices to listen to while considering their response.

Dr. Latkovic doesn't let anyone off the hook, returning again and again to the Scriptures, basic moral teaching, and the question of personal virtue. If you're looking for a book to tell you that the easy-out you're considering is A-OK, then buy another book (or better yet, write that advice columnist, making sure to word your letter carefully so that you get the answer you want.)  But if you want sound moral advice grounded in God's Word and centuries of wisdom, then Dr.  Latkovic's book is an excellent and accessible place to begin.


What's a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions That Matter © 2013 by Mark Latkovic published by Our Sunday Visitor. It can be purchased at bookstores or online at sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Joseph's Way: Prayer of Faith - the best book on Christian fatherhood available

By most objective standards, I have been a successful father. My wife of nearly 33 years and I accepted all six children the Lord sent to us and raised them so that they have taken responsibility for their own lives. They are all faithful to the Lord in their own unique ways, most have married fine spouses, and most of those are responsibly raising families of their own. In a culture where “my kid doesn't live in my basement” is considered a milestone of parental achievement, my record as a father looks pretty good by external measures. More than one person in my life has noticed this, and suggested that I write a book about how to be a good father.

Well, I've got good news: you don't have to wait for me to get around to that project. The book I would have written on fatherhood has been written, and more powerfully than I could have done. It's called Joseph's Way: Prayer of Faith by Devin Schadt, and is published by Ignatius Press.

I have read many guidebooks for Christian fathers in my day, many of them excellent. But this work is the finest I have ever laid hands on, a superb blend of the devotional and the practical that will change any man who reads it and takes it to heart. Throughout the book I found Devin speaking truths that I had learned over the my 28 years of raising children through much trial and heartache, and speaking these truths in a way that made them understandable and applicable by every man. This is the book I wish I'd had when I was starting out as a father, and even now I'm grateful for its lessons.

I don't know much about Devin Schadt, except that he founded a ministry called Fathers of St. Joseph and speaks on the vocation and calling of fatherhood. It is clear from the book that my brother Devin is a very Godly man who knows the Scriptures like the back of his hand, has steeped himself in the teachings of the Church, and has a profound devotional life.  This is a man who sits at the feet of Jesus, Mary, and St. Joseph, as well as many other godly teachers, and then passes along what he has learned for the good of his brothers.

The book's subtitle is “80 days to unlocking your power as a father”, and that's exactly how it is divided up – as 80 brief, 1-3 page meditations which are perfect for reading over the morning cup of coffee.  But each one is profound and insightful, illustrating important truths and challenging men to step up to their Divine calling. Unlike many other books on fatherhood, this book doesn't deal with superficial, how-to formulas, as if raising Godly children was some kind of mechanistic process. There's a place for such books, but more important are the “heart adjustments”, where men learn to form a Godly character. Using Old Testament saints like Abraham and Jacob, and always returning to the shining example of St. Joseph, Devin shows how Godliness is not only attainable but necessary for every man.

One thing I deeply love about this book is that it's an antidote to the subtle poison of clericalism. As Catholic men, it's easy for us to fall into thinking that if we're really serious about our faith, we should become priests or religious. Then we make the logical and spiritual error that because we're not priests or religious, therefore we don't have to be serious about our faith.  We want to leave holiness to the professionals (and maybe our wives) while we bring home the paycheck and insure the lawn is mowed.

My beloved brother Devin doesn't let anyone get away with this attitude.  He makes clear that marriage and fatherhood is every bit as much a Godly vocation as the priesthood is, and that our personal paths to holiness lies through our diligent attention to that ministry, whatever the cost to ourselves.  This echoes what I believe to be the central lesson that I've learned over the years as a father, and the one lesson I'd emphasize as central to whatever success I've had: that I – not my priest, not my wife, not the religious ed department – was primarily responsible for my children's spiritual formation as well as their physical welfare, and I would someday answer before the Throne of God for my attention to that responsibility.  (I give credit to my own father for teaching me this.)  Not that I can't accept assistance from any possible source, but ultimately I would be the one responsible. That more than anything was what drove me to my knees to seek the help of the Lord, St. Joseph, and anyone else I could find.

If you're serious about growing as a husband and father – heck, if you're serious about growing as a man – this is the book to get. Don't order one copy. Order four, because as you delve into it, I promise you that you'll want to hand along copies to men you know. Sisters, order this book for your husband, or for any man in your life who wishes to grow in holiness.  (Right now, it's on sale at ignatius.com!)

I thank Devin Schadt for writing this book, which clearly is the result of much experience, prayer, and personal devotion.  I look forward to reading the followup books he's written.  He has clearly and profoundly laid out the path to holiness for husbands and fathers, the path trod by our great hero and mentor, St. Joseph.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Rising

Superpowers. We're fascinated by them.  We buy books (usually comic books) and flock to movies that feature humans with extraordinary strength, or speed, or mobility, or whatever. The image of the super-man, whatever “super” might mean, rivets our imagination. (I discuss this in an earlier post.)

To me, our appreciation of these imaginary characters seems largely vicarious: we enjoy superheroes because we like to imagine what we'd do if we had such powers. This may partially explain the growing phenomenon of costumed play (“cosplay”), where participants don costumes and attend conferences and gatherings “in character”, enabling them to indulge the fantasy that we can be immortal, or super-strong, or possess some other super-human attribute that lifts us above the mundane lot of common life.

One thing notably lacking in this view of superpowers is a genuine apprehension of what life would be like for the possessor of such powers. Oh, the better of such tales, such as Iron Man and Spiderman, at times attempt to grapple with the humanity of the heroes and the struggles that accompany, and at times are caused by, their distinctive condition. And though these aspects of the stories do add depth to the characters, the consumers of such fare can only tolerate so much angst-ridden introspection before returning to the exercise of the superpower to resolve matters (this is, after all, a superhero story.)

As a new exception to this trend, I recommend The Rising (Ignatius Press, 2014) by Robert Ovies.  It's a hard book to categorize, containing elements of a supernatural thriller, a conspiracy novel, and a family drama. But in the final analysis, it's a book about a boy with what we'd call a “superpower”, and what effect that has on his life and the lives of those around him.  The plot revolves around an ordinary  nine-year-old boy named Christopher Joseph Walker, or C.J., who discovers that he has the power to touch people and heal them – even if they are not only dead, but embalmed. There seems nothing extraordinary about C.J.  He doesn't display any unusual piety or interest in spiritual things. He lives with his mother who is divorced, and they attend a parish in suburban Detroit. When attending a viewing for a family friend who succumbed to swift-moving cancer, C.J. touches her and says, “Be well.” It's only a wish, he doesn't mean anything by it and certainly doesn't expect anything to change.  But then the lady proceeds to begin healing right there in the coffin, to the point that she's animate within ten minutes and is completely restored to health within a day.

Ovies handles this astonishing event with commendable realism. At first the incident is suspected to be incompetence by the medical staff. Then doubt is cast on the funeral director. It takes a while for the truth to come out that C.J. was responsible. This delay gives Ovies time to develop the protective relationship that C.J.'s mother Lynn has with the boy.  To the impatient reader this may be frustrating, but it has a point – in fact it is the point – in the story.  Her estranged husband, the ambitious but irresponsible Joe, is still engaged in the boy's life, but Lynn is the primary caretaker – a status that will prove critical as the story unfolds.

As the truth becomes slowly apparent, various tests are arranged to verify that C.J.'s incredible ability is legitimate. Another dead and embalmed person is touched and healed. They learn that C.J.'s gift is not restricted to the dead – he touches some severely ill people and wishes them to be well, and they recover miraculously. (Incidentally, this brings up one of my few quibbles with the book – it keeps referring to the dead returning to life as “resurrection”. “Resuscitation” would be the more appropriate term, since the parties will die again.  C.J.'s gift is that of “super-healing”, working on not only diseased but necrotic tissue.)  The secret of who is responsible for these wonders is at first kept between Lynn, Joe, and their parish priest, Fr. Mark. Lynn is cautious but Joe dreams of the riches he will (finally) make due to his son's power.  To Joe, this is The Break he's been hoping for his entire life. But then, due to the duplicity of one of the desperate characters in the story, C.J.'s identity and abilities are made public.

This is when the story makes a sharp departure from the typical “superpower” story. The expectable pattern from here would be C.J. gaining increasing notoriety, doing greater and greater wonders with his powers, going to Impressive Places to meet Important People, perhaps encountering some Nefarious Opposition leading to a Dramatic Confrontation, but emerging as an Important Person in his own right.

Instead, though we certainly have increasing notoriety, we also have Lynn responding with skepticism and reticence to expose C.J. to the forces wanting to make use of him. This may seem odd to the reader, especially given the nature of C.J.'s gift. Super-healing? How can that be anything but good? For Pete's sake, get him down to the ICUs and cancer wards and trauma centers where he can start helping people! It's not like it costs him anything, and it could do a world of good!  What's the problem?

Here is where I think Ovies hits the target dead-center. Lynn, with a mother's canny intuition, discerns the true issue: will her son be reduced to an object to be used by others for their purposes?  She appreciates the good C.J. could potentially do, but she doesn't want him objectivized in the process.  Given the dramatic and powerful nature of his gift, she knows that's exactly what could happen if someone doesn't look out for him. Even Joe is bedazzled by the prospect of what C.J.'s gift could mean, his (legitimate) paternal concern for the boy's true welfare assuaged by the fact that a healing gift this powerful can do only good.

This becomes the axis of tension for the entire book, as Lynn seeks to protect C.J. and extricate him from the maelstrom of expectations that swirl around their lives.  Ovies skillfully weaves a tale without any “bad guys”, only people responding predictably in the presence of such unexpected potential. Oh, there's a mob boss – but he's just a grieving father in danger of losing his beloved son. The hard-nosed lawyer? Just trying to protect his employer and friend from heartbreak.  The cardinal? At worst misguided in his response to this phenomenon. Even the cardinal's ambitious friend, who does the worst thing in the story, isn't malicious, just overreaching in his hopes and desires – though he does epitomize the tendency to objectivize young C.J.

I won't reveal any spoilers, because you should enjoy the book for yourself. Redemption comes from an unexpected corner, so in a sense that resolves the story's main tension. But many questions are left unanswered, and indeed unaddressed. Where did C.J.'s power come from? Why was it given? Is it gone? The people who were resuscitated – what happened to them while they were dead? Did Lynn make the best choice in insulating C.J., or was he given the gift to be used?  There's no tidy wrapping up of these knotty questions, which is probably as it should be.

As a story, particularly as a first story, Ovies did a wonderful job with this book. Perhaps he put a bit too much time into the numerous scenes portraying how much Lynn loved C.J. and would protect him, but not so much as to bog down the story and certainly no more than one might expect in a debut work.  There are a few copy editing points (hopefully you'll miss them – I didn't), but if The Rising is Robert Ovies initial effort, I'm looking forward to his future works.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Tobit's Dog

I try to order new novels from my publisher whenever I can afford to, partly to encourage them to keep publishing fiction and partly out of solidarity with my fellow authors.  Sadly, the results are sometimes mixed, but lately I managed to get two real winners which I deeply enjoyed. The first of these is Tobit's Dog, by Michael Richard.

This book had to have been an adventure to write. It is quite up-front about the fact that it is a “retelling” of the story of Tobit from the Bible (you'll need a complete Bible to find it.)  Though some might carp about “not being original” or some such post-Romantic nonsense, this didn't put me off in the least.  None of us really tells any truly original stories – everything is but a recasting and re-presenting of stories we've heard time and again. The only question I had was, how well did Mr. Richards retell the story of Tobit?

The answer is, “dang well”. First and foremost, Tobit's Dog is a rollicking good read. Siting the story in the American South just prior to the Second World War was genius.  The story of Tobit itself, with those Bible-era people with the Bible-era names and circumstances, is hard for we moderns to appreciate.  Portraying Tobit as a black man during the Jim Crow days subtly but powerfully brings home just what life must have been like for Jews during their exile in the greater Middle East.  Richard skillfully translates thematic elements from the original story into the new setting, making them not just believable, but easy to relate to. The story is engaging and fast-moving, with personal drama, tension, a bit of mystery, tragedy, and redemption all flowing in a thoroughly enjoyable stream.

Michael Richards is a very skillful writer. He draws the reader in effortlessly, creating believable situations and empathetic characters that make you want to follow along, to see what will happen next (even the durn mule!)  The story has characters, not two-dimensional caricatures. Nothing is strained or forced. Things happen and people respond because that's what would happen next, and that's how that character would respond, not simply because that's what needs to happen next in the plot. (As an author myself I can really appreciate this – one of the big struggles to keep a story authentic to itself is keeping the events and characters internally consistent.)  He also gracefully folds in elements from the original tale in such a believable manner that you find yourself wondering how he's going to pull off the next one! (Look for the catfish.)

But – believable? With an angel as a protagonist? Richards pulls it off, his Ace Redbone subtly played, with only hints and glimpses of the hidden reality.  I was reminded of C.S. Lewis' observation that everyone can recount some event in their life that they would call “rum” or “curious” - never fully comprehended, but part of their experience.  We see the negative of that from time to time, even in this story which alludes to intergenerational abuse, official corruption, secret murder, and brutal suicide.  Is it that hard to believe that there are also good forces slipping about in the shadows, nudging here and strengthening there? Indeed, Ace Redbone's most prominent role is in support of the humans he encounters – to encourage the good, roadblock the evil, offer hope to those on the edge of despair (some take it, some don't.) The interplay between this mysterious presence and the humans in the story is skillfully told – even to the point that at a critical juncture his power is subdued until the human releases it by an act of fierce courage.

This is a hard tale to categorize. Human drama? Mystery? Supernatural thriller? Quirky Gothic? It defies pigeonholing. I recommend you get a copy and judge for yourself.

I've heard it increasingly said of late that the problem with the modern world isn't that it doesn't have enough information, or even think clearly enough, but that it listens to the wrong stories.  Before we are deceived by wrong facts or misled by poor logic, our imaginations are corrupted by false tales.  We need to fill our hearts and imaginations with true stories. Tobit's Dog is such a story (reasonably enough, given its original source). It includes evil – horrendous evil – but tells the triumph of the good in a believable way.  Not without struggle and sorrow, but never without hope. That's a story our world needs to hear more often.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Welcoming God's Blessings - or rejecting them

Within the last eleven months we've married off three of our children. Their spouses are all wonderful people, the families are all tremendous, and we're delighted in all of them. But in the midst of the beauty and love, I heard something that caused me to ponder, and ultimately saddened me.

The thing itself was beautiful and wonderful: the solemn Nuptial Blessing pronounced over the the couples as part of the Wedding Mass.  I imagined it was a delight to the celebrating priests to pronounce it over the couples, knowing that they were entering into the sacrament with clear-eyed awareness of what they were doing and full-hearted intention of following through with their whole lives.  These couples, at least, received the blessing in its fullness, accepting all the grace that came with it to help them with the wondrous burden of Holy Matrimony.

All of the weddings had the Nuptial Blessing, but at two of the Masses the full, “long-form” of the blessing was pronounced, during which we all prayed for the couples and then the priest read the full blessing, which included the following text:

...may they be blessed with children, 
and prove themselves virtuous parents, 
who live to see their children's children.

Someone as familiar with the Old Testament as I am will recognize and appreciate how this draws from places like Psalm 128, and is implicit in so many blessings found throughout salvation history. This summarizes God's desire for the human family: fertility, long life, and intergenerational blessing.  When things go God's way, this is what is seen: couples lovingly welcoming the children God sends, and then raising them and seeing them raise children of their own, all within the framework of loving families. Ellen and I have certainly seen this in our lives.

But even as I heard this, I considered a bitter incongruity in our current age.  In our pro-life work, and ministering to many women over the years who've had abortions, I'm keenly aware of a cruel fact: many times women are pressured into abortion by their own family, often their own parents.  Think about that, especially in light of the line from the Nuptial Blessing.

Grandparents are pressuring to have their own grandchildren killed.

How much further from God's plan can you get?

I'm currently reading the wonderful book Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews by Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson.  The whole thing is great, but I'm particularly intrigued by how well they spell out the differences in outlook between the ancient cultures, especially Hebrew, and other cultures like the Hellenistic, or our own modern times.  People in ancient cultures saw themselves much more embedded in their society and family (which were usually the same thing). They knew where they came from, and their descendants were extremely important to their effective immortality. Childlessness was the worst of conditions, and having many descendants was the greatest thing to be desired (getting to see them was even better – see Genesis 48.)

But cultures steeped in atomic individualism, such as the Hellenistic culture, or our own, cannot grasp the importance of this. To us, individual success is the pivotal thing. Parents want to “succeed”, with “success” being defined almost exclusively in terms of economic prosperity and worldly comfort, and the best thing they could wish for the children was more of that. Hence the urgency of getting into a good college and graduating well and nailing down that all-important first job.  Unexpected pregnancies are a hindrance to that, so those have to be swept aside.

But listening with “ancient ears”, as when hearing a blessing pronounced over your own children that has echoed down through the millennia, makes one think of the spiritual consequences of our modern actions. If the blessing of children, and living to see them to the third or even the fourth generation, is a good which the Lord Himself has pronounced supreme, then what must be the spiritual fallout of grandparents so rejecting their own offspring that they're willing to snuff out their lives?  If one is the wish of heaven, what can the other be but the very ideal of hell?

I rejoice for my children, the more fully because I know they all agreed with that blessing and accepted it with a wholehearted joy (in fact, two of them are now expecting – the third, it's too early to tell!)  But with a heavy heart I had to wonder what the spiritual effect is of so many grandparents so rejecting the blessing of grandchildren that they're willing to pour out their blood on the altar of Moloch just to have the “fulfilled life” which that terrible idol so deceptively promises.

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.