The Muppet Christmas Carol

[Week 4 of the “Imagination in Action” reflection series, Theme this week: Almsgiving]

I don’t think there is a movie that I have watched as often in my adult life as The Muppet Christmas Carol. More than ten years ago it became a tradition in my family to watch it every Christmas, and I always look forward to it! I think it is the best version of Charles Dickens’ classic tale. The songs and humor bring out the joy of the story, but the acting of Michael Caine and the narration of Gonzo (surprisingly) supply a real gravity to the serious aspects. In the end, it’s hard to imagine someone watching this movie without being drawn into the joy of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s conversion to love expressed in charity to his neighbor.

It gives a powerful image of the classic idea of almsgiving. We mainly use this word in terms of giving money, but it’s origin/etymology is even wider. It comes from the Old English aelmysse, connected ultimately with the Greek word eleēmosunē (“compassion”) from the root word eleos (“mercy”). This is the same root as the Spanish word “limosnas” and the “Kyrie eleison” that we say at Mass (“Lord, have mercy”). So, in this way, “almsgiving” invites us to all of the works of mercy, which are usually grouped as seven corporal works (caring for the body – such as giving food, shelter, clothing, or caring for the sick) and seven spiritual works (caring for the spirit – such as comforting, counseling, or teaching).

Almsgiving is most often spoken of as one of the three practices of Lent (along with prayer and fasting). St Peter Chrysologus speaks of the connection between these three in one of his sermons: “Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them… if you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing… Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy. Fasting dries up when mercy dries up. Mercy is to fasting as rain is to the earth. However much you may cultivate your heart, clear the soil of your nature, root out vices, sow virtues, if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit. When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn. Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering… You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others.”

Scrooge first appears in the story as one who represents this “dried up fasting.” He lives a cold, austere life in which his wealth bears no fruit. He takes life from others (figuratively if not literally), and seems to have no true relationship with God or any other human being. After his encounter with the three ghosts, though, he is transformed. Scrooge begins to radiate love. He is experiencing the truth of the Gospel that the harvest is abundant when mercy is scattered – the paradox that Christ’s love on the Cross pours out new life.

Some people surely do struggle with greed in the way that Scrooge does, but I think for most there are different obstacles to mercy. It is not that someone is unwilling, but maybe feels unable to do more when faced with all of the challenges of their personal life. Or, perhaps we do not know where to begin in the light of all of the needs out there. Perhaps we have been burned by a scam or other situation that makes us hesitant to try again.

Where do we begin? We can begin through prayer by asking, “Lord, who can I reach out to today/this week?” Here we can discern a corporal or spiritual work of mercy that is within our capability. Another question may be: “who can I connect with to help practice love of neighbor in my life?” A group or organization can often accomplish more than we are able to alone. As a pastor, I would like to develop ways that my parishes can strengthen their outreach and coordinate the many good things already happening.

The details are perhaps staggering, but let us keep the vision of Christ’s love in front of our eyes to inspire us for the future. May He keep the fires burning in our imagination to inspire us when the way is difficult. I’d like to end with some words from Scrooge’s closing song in The Muppet Christmas Carol: “With an open heart that is wide awake, I do make this promise: Every breath I take, Will be used now to sing your praise, And to beg you to share my days, With a loving guarantee, that even if we part- I will hold you close with a thankful heart.”

Manalive

[Week 3 of the “Imagination in Action” series. Theme this week: Fasting]

GK Chesterton is one of my favorite authors, although at times he can be a difficult author to read! He loves clever turns of phrase, paradoxes, and indirect references. However, contained within this complex writing style is tremendous insight. One of his stories that I think represents all of these aspects is “Manalive.” It tells the strange tale of Innocent Smith, who arrives at an English boarding house with a great gust of wind and brings chaos in his wake. He seems to be a madman, and in the second part of the book is placed on trial. In the end, they conclude that his seemingly insane antics were actually designed to bring sanity to life. The title of the story describes what he wanted to be: a man alive, not merely one going through the motions.

A key example of this would be the charge raised against him that he had abandoned his home. It is later revealed that he left precisely to get back to it with a proper appreciation. In one of his conversations Innocent says, “My pilgrimage is not yet accomplished… I have become a pilgrim to cure myself of being an exile.” An exile is one who is separated from one’s homeland. He had realized that he had begun to take everything for granted, and felt that this separated him from seeing what was really there. Going on a pilgrimage, in contrast to being exiled, is a deliberate choice to leave home in search of some goal. It is an ascetical practice, embracing simplicity and sacrifice, rather than a vacation. By taking up this pilgrimage Innocent Smith was able to return home with new eyes, and a new awareness of gratitude and wonder at what he found.

In the spiritual life we can become enslaved to things (sinful or not) that separate us from what is essential. We get drawn to distraction, which leads to apathy about important things. The classic temptations of pleasure, power, possessions, or popularity can become false gods in our life. They provide unstable foundations that can trap us in vicious cycles of seeking more and more, while they often depend on circumstances that can change without our control. Fasting is a powerful tool to break these bonds. It involves developing the ability to say “no” to what is less important so that we can say “yes” to what is more important. The power behind fasting in the Christian sense is the grace of God, rather than trying to rely on willpower alone. In this way it opens us to prayer when we encounter our weakness, and to establish a clearer way of seeing the world. It helps to set us free from selfishness by giving us companionship with Christ and all those who suffer, and so gives an invitation to deepened charity. Fasting likewise opens up avenues of wonder and thanksgiving at the blessings we do have.

While Manalive’s example of leaving on a trip around the world is probably not the correct choice for us (setting aside our responsibilities like a student giving up homework for Lent!), I think it does paint a powerful picture of what place “fasting” can have in the spiritual life. The paradoxes of GK Chesterton are rooted in Christ’s words about the Cross – what seems to be a path to death is in fact a path to life. By embracing the path of the spiritual life, we are led by the grace of God to being men and women fully alive.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

[Week 2 of the “Imagination in Action” reflection series. Theme this week: Prayer]

“The Slow Regard of Silent Things” by Patrick Rothfuss is admittedly a strange short story. He himself begins the foreword by writing, “You might not want to buy this book.” It is a poetic, bittersweet tale written from the perspective of a young woman (Auri) who lives by herself in a forgotten and ruined set of rooms beneath a university (this story is set in the same world as his book “The Name of the Wind”). Although I agree with his assessment that this book is an odd one, I am very thankful that I came across it! I believe it paints a powerful picture of the practice of contemplative prayer.

For many people I think prayer comes across like a burden. Living a life dedicated to prayer sounds about as interesting as living a life dedicated to completing homework assignments. We undertake the task because we believe it can bring some benefit, but we don’t find the experience pleasant or life-giving. I think it is fair to acknowledge that there is indeed an aspect of what the desert fathers saw as “the spiritual combat” in prayer, particularly in prayers of petition. It is not always easy and requires discipline. However, this is far from the only aspect of prayer, and it is not the end goal. The end goal of prayer is union with God. Prayer draws out expressions of petition and contrition, but should also draw us to thanksgiving and praise. Prayer can give illumination to the mind and fire to the heart. It can become the lifeblood of our day when we realize its deeper potential.

I see a vision of this in Rothfuss’ short story. Auri has been led to live in this desolate place by some past tragedy (the exact details are only hinted at). Rather than finding mere isolation she has encountered a mission: setting the ruins in order. She has come to appreciate the “slow regard of silent things.” She describes this mission as being someone that “tended to the proper turning of the world.” For example, in the story she finds a gear from a broken machine and dedicates herself to finding its right place. She likewise seeks to discern how to arrange the things in her room and whether objects are for her use or to save for gifts. In all of this we begin to get the sense that this is not just the manifestation of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, but that Auri really has the ability to see the significance of things that others miss. Her patient dedication to observing the world has given her a clarity about life that few possess. The Spanish translation of this story calls it “La Música del Silencio” (“The Music of Silence”) – something Auri can hear that others cannot. She gains strength by working with the nature of the world rather than trying to force it to conform to her whims.

In this way, I think the story paints a picture of contemplative prayer. Her life in many ways is like that of a religious sister in a convent. However, this life isn’t limited only to one who has a similar amount of time available. It isn’t just a matter of the quantity of time we can dedicate to prayer (which may be much more limited in our own circumstances), but of the quality of our prayer time. It concerns carving out some space (whenever and however we are able) to allow this transformation to take place. There are many aids to entering into this experience – e.g. praying in the Liturgy, with Scripture, Eucharistic Adoration, the rosary, listening to music, or looking at religious artwork. Our goal is to discern how to apply it to our circumstances.

How can we re-imagine the way that we view prayer in our life? How can we re-imagine our parish as a better school for prayer? Prayer is something that we should look forward to with hope, instead of dread. May the Lord bless us in our own efforts to practice this “slow regard,” and to encounter the grace prepared within!

The Monsters and the Critics

[Week 1 of the “Imagination in Action” reflection series. Introduction to the series.]

JRR Tolkien is best known for writing The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. However, his main career was not as an author – this was a sort of side-hobby for him. Instead, he was a professor of Anglo-Saxon language (aka Old English) at Oxford. Beowulf (an epic Old English poem) was a key area of study for him. It tells the tale of a hero named Beowulf that arrives to save a kingdom from the attacks of a demonic creature named Grendel (and Grendel’s mother), and then at the end of his life must also defend against an attack by a dragon. Beowulf slays the dragon, but dies of his wounds.

Tolkien gave a famous lecture on this story, which was later published as an essay called “The Monster and the Critics.” Here Tolkien responded to critics that complained that the story of Beowulf was too simplistic for an epic. Rather than the grand travels of something like the Odyssey by Homer, it only talked about a couple of battles against monsters. In response to this critique Tolkien argued that by limiting its scope it actually widened its applicability. He wrote that, “It glimpses the cosmic and moves with the thought of all men concerning the fate of human life and efforts.” The monsters could be seen to represent the struggles of the beginning and end of life, and hinted at the supernatural aspect of faith. Putting the “monsters” in the forefront of the story was a deliberate choice based on what the author wanted to convey.

This connects with a general principle that Tolkien believed about ancient myths/legends. In one of his letters he wrote, “I believe that legends and myths are largely made up of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode.” He is not saying that Bilbo Baggins or Beowulf existed historically, but that their stories tell true things about our world. Some of these truths might be obscured by the complexity of life. By setting the stories in a fictional world, an author can help us to see our world in a different light. Tolkien sought to follow this ancient pattern of myth and legend in the way that he wrote the Lord of the Rings. He wanted a story that highlighted many of the real struggles of life through the “sub-creation” of an alternate reality.

My appreciation for Tolkien has only grown as I’ve read these other works of his that explain his vision and philosophy of “myth.” It sparks my imagination to enjoy stories both in themselves and in the ways they illuminate reality. It also explains why certain stories, very simple in themselves, can have such a powerful impact on us. And, ultimately, I think it helps us to understand why the Word was made Flesh, and lived among us. The life of Christ brings together all of these glimpses at truth in the actual course of human events, and invites us to see our life in this larger dimension.

Advent 2020 Prayer Study – Week 4

Merry Christmas! I write this in the midst of our celebration of the Christmas Octave. The manger scene is a fitting scene to consider for our final step of the classic “lectio divina” method of praying with Scripture- contemplation. Here we refer not to the human act of prayer, but God’s response. It may be a felt inspiration/guidance or not. However, with faith and hope we take time to listen for God in our prayer. Our goal is not only an interior monologue of our meditation and prayers – we seek a dialogue in which we encounter God’s voice. Just as the figures around the manger gaze in receptive adoration of the birth of the Christ child, let us remember to leave time for contemplation in our prayer to allow space for God to act!

Weekly notes from Facebook-

Monday: Silence can scare us, and drive us to want to fill up the space with noise or busy-ness. However, silence gives a space where relationship can grow and a gift can be received. Our prayerful time with Scripture should include not only reading, reflecting, and expressing our reflections in prayer, but also silence and open receptivity to God.

Tuesday: St Teresa of Avila, one of the master teachers on prayer, describes the difference between human cooperation in prayer (what we have been discussing in the first three steps) and God’s response. Here are some of her words on this topic from Way of Perfection (ch. 31): “I still want to describe this prayer of quiet to you in the way that I have heard it explained and as the Lord has been pleased to teach it to me. . . . This is a supernatural state and however hard we try, we cannot acquire it by ourselves. . . . The faculties are stilled and have no wish to move, for any movement they make seems to hinder the soul from loving God. They are not completely lost, however, since two of them are free and they can realize in whose presence they are. It is the will that is captive now. . . . The intellect tries to occupy itself with only one thing, and the memory has no desire to busy itself with more. They both see that this is the one thing necessary; anything else will cause them to be disturbed.”

Wednesday: Often we are tempted to rate our prayer as “good or bad” based on whether we feel a certain way at the end. While at times we do experience a sense of inspiration, this isn’t the only time that God is active. The response we “feel” can depend on many factors (what is going on in our life at the time, emotional state, etc). If we have spent the time seeking conversation with God (despite distractions), we can be confident that God is at work in our life to guide us by His grace!

Thursday: Yesterday I spoke of not trying to force a particular response in prayer and not to evaluate prayer just on our emotional response, but that doesn’t mean we should have low expectations! As we wait in joyful anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Christ tomorrow, it is good to remember that we should approach prayer with an expectant faith, confident God will be present and active in whatever situation we may be!

Friday: (no post on this topic, as it was Christmas day!)

Advent 2020 Prayer Study – Week 3

The third step of Lectio Divina is prayer. This may sound strange, since isn’t this whole process about praying with the Scriptures? The distinction here is not just doing something in a prayerful manner (eg reading or reflection), but actually talking with God. In our first steps there is a danger of just staying trapped in our own mind or thoughts. Here we need to turn that interior monologue into a dialogue with God. After reading and reflecting on the Scripture passage, what do we want to say to God? What do we want to ask God? For whom or what do we want to pray or give thanks?

Monday: Our ability to make tasks “routine” is often a good thing (eg we don’t want to spend as much time thinking about how to tie our shoes now as we did when we first learned!). However, this can lead to struggle in prayer since we can become less engaged with our conversation with God as our words become habitual. This can happen with formulas of prayer (like the Our Father) or even with our own patterns of thought if we make use of personal prayers. So, let’s look at the types of things we say in prayer, and remember what they really mean! I will guide the reflections this week along the structure of the beginning of Mass, since this is something that has become “routine” for many of us!

Tuesday: We make the Sign of the Cross as we begin Mass, and usually at the beginning of our personal prayers. This gives us an opportunity to reflect on who we are and to Whom we are speaking: we are a baptized child of God and are speaking with the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! This connection of relationship is important to remember as we move from reflection on our Scripture reading into conversation with God.

Wednesday: After the Sign of the Cross comes the Penitential Rite, in which we ask pardon from God for failings “in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.” Was there something in the Scripture passage that reminded us of a need to ask pardon? We can ask the Lord to give us the grace to learn from our faults. Honesty about failures helps to build a stronger relationship with God. And, although this is an important step, we remember that sorrow for sin is not the only step of prayer. Sometimes we might be tempted to skip saying sorry, but at other times we might be tempted to spend all of our time wallowing in our failures. Instead, we take the time to ask forgives so that we can clear the path to move forward.

Thursday: The Gloria comes after the Penitential Rite at Mass. Here we express our praise and thanksgiving to God in words that are drawn from the message of the angels to the Shepherds at Christmas. This is definitely the longest part of the opening rites to Mass, and I think that this is an important lesson. If we struggle with this prayer, the problem is probably not that the Gloria is too long and needs to be shortened, but that we need to grow in our awareness of gratitude and praise! After reading the passage of Scripture we we can speak with God about what ways it inspired us to give praise or thanks.

Friday: The final part of the introductory rites of Mass is the Opening Prayer or “Collect.” After having called to mind to Whom we are speaking in the Sign of the Cross, asked pardon for sins in the Penitential Rite, and given praise and thanks to God in the Gloria, we now “collect” together our prayers to ask God for what we need and for the needs of the world. What petitions come to our mind based on our meditation on the Scripture passage that we just read?

Advent 2020 Prayer Study – Week 2

The second step of the “lectio divina” method of praying with the Bible is called “Meditation.” This word can be used to mean many different things, and nowadays often is used in terms of what we spoke about last week – mental preparation for prayer in order to focus our attention, etc. However, in the classic sense this word refers not just to mental preparation, but to prayerful reflection and consideration of the Scripture passage. Last week we sought to read through the passage and pay attention to where we felt called to “go deeper.” The first step was like searching for spiritual food, and now in meditation we begin to chew and digest what we encountered. Our prayer to the Holy Spirit is important here so that it can be more than just human reflection or talking to ourselves in our head. What does this passage seem to be saying to us? How does it connect with or shine light on other parts of the Scriptures? What does it tell us about Christ, the Christian life, or heaven? All of these questions can help us to enter into a conversation with God, which we will discuss next week! Below are some daily reflections I posted on Facebook-

Monday: Can a word in Holy Scripture have several senses? St Thomas Aquinas considers this question in the beginning of his famous work called the Summa Theologiae/”Summary of Theology” (Q. 1 A. 10). He answers that yes, a word can have several senses, because God is able of speaking on many levels at once! St Thomas speaks of the literal sense of the text, and then three levels of spiritual meaning – the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. The rest of this week we will be looking at each of these for an aid to our meditation and prayer with Scripture!

Tuesday: The first “sense” of Scripture that St Thomas Aquinas identifies is the literal or historical sense. We may be tempted to skip over the account itself to look for other meanings, but taking the time to consider the scene in depth may help to shed new light on it. A method that could be helpful here is one we spoke of last week – the encouragement of Ignatius Loyola to put ourselves somewhere in the scene as an observer or participant. This can help us to understand the text in a way that prepares us for deeper spiritual senses contained within it!

Wednesday: In addition to the literal/historical sense of a passage, St Thomas identifies three spiritual senses. The first is the Analogical Sense, insofar as “the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law.” The Old Testament prepares for what happens in the New Testament. For example, St Paul sees a symbol for baptism in the Israelites crossing the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10), and St Peter sees one in Noah’s Ark (1 Peter 3). In a related way, we may even see analogies within the New Testament itself (eg Jesus being lost in the Temple for three days in Luke 2 and Jesus being in the tomb for three days). So, one way of meditating on a passage is considering what analogies/connections it may have with other parts of the Bible!

Thursday: St Thomas’ second spiritual sense is the Moral Sense, “so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do.“ This is probably the most common one that comes to our mind, as it involves asking how the passage at hand can guide us in living a Christian life.  Our temptation can often be to try to change Christ into our own version of Him, but here we are invited to let him renew our way of thinking and acting so that we can be transformed into His image.

Friday: The final spiritual sense has the oddest name… the Anagogical Sense! St Thomas says this refers to “so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory.” In other words, how does this passage direct us to better understand the life of heaven? For example, the healing of the blind or lame may invite us to reflect on the joy of being set free from what binds us here. This sense can especially help to nourish our hearts with hope and desire when we are tempted by discouragement or sadness!

Advent 2020 Prayer Study – Week 1

This year our Advent study is on praying with the Bible, using the book “Praying Scripture for a Change” by Tim Gray as a guide. This book is my favorite introduction to “lectio divina,” the classic method of entering into a prayerful dialogue with the Scriptures. I hope that these reflections also help as a general aide in growing in prayer during this holy season.

The first classic step is “Lectio” – “reading.” It is important to begin with the right mindset. Our goal in prayerful reading is not just “getting through” the book, but savoring its content. This can be challenging for us since we often are focused on efficiency in our life. Instead, we should focus on growing in our relationship with God. We should take some time to reflect on when/where/how we will prepare to pray to help focus and avoid distractions (although the most important thing about praying is to actually pray! Don’t put off prayer just because a situation isn’t perfect), and then begin our reading with prayer.

If you are wondering what to pray with, I recommend the upcoming Sunday Gospel (which can be found at usccb.org under “Daily Readings”) or just reading through one of the Gospels chapter by chapter.

As we read, we should pay attention to what strikes us in the passage. Maybe it is a verse that encourages and inspires us, or a verse that challenges us or confuses us. Our goal at this point isn’t to begin to process it, but to discern where God is calling us to enter into our meditation and prayer. The remaining steps will guide us in how to respond to this passage.

Throughout this week I shared a number of additional thoughts on Facebook, which I will list below. Next week we will consider the second step: Meditation. God bless!

Monday: We can’t completely avoid distractions in prayer, but we can take measures to stay focused. St Charles Bellarmine offered this challenge at the last synod he attended, and I offer it as an invitation to reflect on the place, time, posture, and environment that might help us to enter into prayer: “Another priest complains that as soon as he comes into church to pray the office or to celebrate Mass, a thousand thoughts fill his mind and distract him from God. But what was he doing in the sacristy before he came out for the office or for Mass? How did he prepare? What means did he use to collect his thoughts and to remain recollected?”

Tuesday: Another key way that we can help to be attentive and focused in our prayer/reading is to begin with a prayer. Here is a classic prayer to the Holy Spirit, drawn from Psalm 104:30 – Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. “Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.” O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

Wednesday: Here is a very helpful reminder from the Catechism about dealing with distractions in prayer – sometimes we get flustered by them, when really what is needed is a simple response! “To set about hunting down distractions would be to fall into their trap, when all that is necessary is to turn back to our heart: for a distraction reveals to us what we are attached to, and this humble awareness before the Lord should awaken our preferential love for him and lead us resolutely to offer him our heart to be purified” (CCC 2729).

Thursday: St Ignatius Loyola often recommends in his Spiritual Exercises that the reader imagine themselves in a scene of the Scriptures. We may be an onlooker, or place ourselves in the role of someone in the scene. This can help us to enter into the passage that we are reading and spark details to bring to meditation and prayer.

Friday: A final piece of advice for this week to help engage and focus on the text we are reading is to see the way that it connects with the Old or New Testament. St Augustine wrote, “This grace [ie, the salvation of Christ] hid itself under a veil in the Old Testament, but it has been revealed in the New Testament.” The parts of the Bible are interconnected, and so looking for connections to other passages is another approach we can take during our reading to help prepare for our meditation.

“The Search” Parish Study

This week we are beginning an online study called “The Search!” I thought I’d give a little explanation of it here to help build connections.

It is produced by the Augustine Institute, and available through their formed.org streaming service. This is a great, user-friendly way to connect with a lot of high-quality materials for growing in faith (it uses the same interface as Netflix, which probably helps for many!). It can be used through your web browser or through an excellent app. St Malachy/St Elizabeth parishioners can get a free log-in by noting that they belong to the parish on the log-in screen, otherwise you may need to check with your local parish to see about availability.

Out of all of the series on the website, why did I choose to start with “The Search?” I think it provides an excellent step-by-step reflection on our search for God, and therefore is a great resource for anyone, no matter where they are on the spectrum of faith. As we go through the seven videos in the series, we are asked to begin our reflection on the desires of the human heart and our identity. The topics then move through the encounter with God, our encounter with Jesus Christ, and our encounter with the Catholic Church. Along the way we are able to reflect on the reasons for our belief as well as make/deepen a personal connection.

Each Sunday I will share a link to the next excerpt on my social media (see the links on the sidebar of the main page of this website), and each Thursday I will host a discussion on Facebook live at 5:30pm (6pm en español). All are welcome! If you’re not able to join this live, the recap will be available to view on Facebook/YouTube.

Here is a short excerpt (four minutes) from the first video, which should be accessible to all: http://watch.formed.org/videos/the-search-excerpt-what-do-you-seek (the full twenty minute version is available on formed.org).

También hay una versión en español: http://watch.formed.org/videos/thesearch-ep1-formed-esp-1

I hope you can take part in this reflection, God bless!

Star Wars, Good/Evil, and the Communion of the Saints

Spoiler alert: this article spoils one of the main final scenes of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, although I will try to keep other spoilers to a minimum

“Be with me.” This is the first phrase that we hear from Rey in the latest episode of the Star Wars saga (Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker). At the moment, it is not clear whether she is speaking to the Force in general, or a person/group of people in particular. I think the development of this idea in Rise of Skywalker is very significant to the philosophical/religious foundation of the concept of the Force in Star Wars.

At first glance the spirituality of the Force and the Jedi seems to have an immediate application to the Christian faith. The battle between the Light Side and the Dark Side of the Force (the Jedi and the Sith) seems to be a great analogy for Good vs. Evil, Holiness vs. Sin, God vs. the Devil, etc. However, there are actually a few classic problems with the philosophy of the Force.

First and foremost, the two sides of the Force are portrayed as being roughly balanced. This dualism sees the two sides as equals. When one side increases, the other side responds with an increase to match it. This is completely contrary to the Christian conception of the battle between good and evil. The Easter season in particular is a reminder that God has already triumphed. What remains is the extension and application of this victory throughout time, until the ultimate realization of the heavenly kingdom in which death will be no more. Likewise, the power of God is infinitely greater than that of the devil, who has no power over us unless we allow it.

Secondly, there is the problem that the Force is portrayed as an impersonal power like gravity. It is not something that can be said to know and love us. There is some discussion of being “absorbed” into the Force at death, perhaps losing our individual identity. Again, this is completely at odds with the Christian conception of God and the afterlife. In heaven we are fully alive in God and bound to each other, but not in a way that loses our individual existence.

How does Rise of Skywalker handle these questions? In response to the first objection (that the Light Side and Dark Side are even), there is the showdown at the end between a character that possesses the power of all of the Sith and one that possess the power of all of the Jedi. The power of the Light Side clearly defeats and destroys that of the Dark. Shortly before this battle, a voice (see the next paragraph) even encourages this defeat of the Dark as “bring[ing] back the balance.” This supports the theory (which I hold) that the classic prophecy of “bringing balance to the Force” is achieved when the Dark is defeated and the Light is shown to be superior, rather than by bringing Light and Dark into an equal standing. Although not all writers or pieces of Star Wars lore have backed this theory, I think that the clear sense has always been that there is a greater power in the Light rather than the Dark. The Dark is portrayed as having a quick and apparent power, while in reality being corrupting and illusory. It is the Light that perseveres and conquers in the end.

In terms of the second objection to the Force (its impersonal nature), the initial phrase “be with me” is repeated just before this climactic battle between the Sith and Jedi. It is not an impersonal surge of strength that responds, but individual, personal voices. Rise of Skywalker portrays the deceased Jedi as alive, aware, distinct, and involved in the affairs of the world (as the presence of “force ghosts” has always done in the series). It is a wonderful parallel to the Catholic understanding of the communion of the saints. The saints and angels in heaven are active and involved, and we can ask for their prayers in our times of need. While it does not portray the Force as something other than an impersonal power, I think that this is important step in the right direction of personal existence.

As a huge Star Wars fan, I was very happy to see the way these ideas were developed in the film! I hope that this reflection has helped you to appreciate the echo of the victory of the Resurrection and the communion of the saints, which are at the heart of this Easter season!