Manalive

[This post is connected with the third week of my Imagination in Action series]

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

[Note: this post is connected with the second week of my “Imagination in Action” reflection series for Lent/Easter 2021. The theme of this week is 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

[Side note – this post is connected with the first week of my reflections for Lent/Easter 2021, with the theme “Imagination in Action!”]

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.

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!

The Fellowship

The first part of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings largely focuses on the gathering together of the “Fellowship of the Ring.” (mild spoilers for this paragraph, if for some reason you are not already familiar with this story!). This is a group of heroes gathered from all the races of Middle Earth (ie humans, hobbits, elves, and dwarves – along with the wizard Gandalf) that unites for the purpose of destroying the dominion that the One Ring holds on the world. I think in that way the Fellowship is an image of the universal Church. The original Greek word for church – ekklesia – in fact means an assembly that has been called together. They set out against their opposition, and even come to a point at which the Fellowship seems to break – although in truth they stay united to their purpose despite no longer being in each other’s company.

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel describes a breaking among the disciples of Jesus: “many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (Jn 6: 66). The dispute here centered on His words, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6: 53). At the end of the chapter, Jesus also speaks of the upcoming betrayal of Judas Iscariot (verses 70-71).

I think these passages give an important warning at the end of the Bread of Life discourse. Jesus is preparing this community/fellowship, and desires it to be a place of transformative encounter with Him (in a particular way in the celebration of the sacrament of His body and blood). However, our response to His invitation maintains its freedom. There is no substitute for a conversion of self, and no external proclamation that is sufficient without an interior correspondence.

At the time of this writing there is unfortunately the scandal of priests and bishops that  have used their positions to abuse (or cover up abuse) of those in their care. They took the external signs of consecration, but without a true internal correspondence. Instead of loving the Church as Christ loves her, they chose to care more about worldly prestige or personal gain. This is deeply saddening and I am so sorry for those affected. I pray for healing for those harmed directly or indirectly by the scandal, and for a true purification of the Church. I pray that I may be a faithful minister of Christ, and always do my part to protect those in the part of the vineyard entrusted to me. I am aware of my weaknesses, and ask for your prayers to fully respond to God’s call.

What inspires me at this time, though, is to meditate on that original plan of Christ for this Fellowship of the Church, and to be a part of its renewal. As ugly as scandal is, I am thankful that what has been brought to light is not continuing its growth in the darkness, where corruption breeds most quickly. May the light of Christ shine and drive out the darkness. I am reminded of the joy of living a life rooted in the presence of Christ, and renewed in my desire to fight against everything that seeks dominion in my life in opposition to it.

Visiting the Alamo

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. I was familiar with it through tv shows and general American culture. Still, the visit there left a surprisingly deep impression on me.

Some might not know that it was originally built as the Catholic Mission of San Antonio, and the main building was designed as the chapel. Because of circumstances it ended up spending the majority of its time as a military/government base, but one of its side rooms was maintained as a functioning chapel for many years. The building is now surrounded by downtown San Antonio, although space has been preserved for a park that maintains the feeling of the original complex. Most of it is set-up like a typical museum, with artifacts, dioramas, talks, and even some historical reenactors (we saw one giving a musket demonstration).

What surprised me, though, was the reverence maintained in the old church itself. The door bore an old metal sign with the inscription, “Be silent, friend. Here heroes died to blaze a trail for other men.” In thinking of all those who have given their lives for others, the words of the Gospel came to mind: “No greater love has one than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend” (John 15:13). Hats were to be removed and no camera/electronic devices were permitted. The space was clean and simple, with a few displays explaining aspects of the building, and a set of plaques listing the names of all of the deceased. It seemed the deaths were recent events, and the weight of loss was palpable.

Of course, from my perspective it was impossible to think of this without recalling that in a small side room the Franciscan priests at the mission had regularly celebrated Mass – the sacrament of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. “For freedom Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Side-by-side were the temporal struggle and the eternal dimension. It still merits further reflection for me. May I try honor those that have given me the opportunities that I have in this life, and the One that has offered me a freedom beyond that which the world can give.

The Epiphany and Seeking God

My favorite reflection on the feast of the Epiphany comes from GK Chesterton. [Side note: the Epiphany is the day we commemorate the visit of the Magi/Wise Men/Three Kings to Christ. In the Church it represents in general the public revelation of the identity of Christ, so can also include Jesus’ baptism or the wedding feast at Cana, his first public miracle]. The reflection comes from his book Everlasting Man—a book that deserves a post in itself! I found it dense and a little difficult to work through, but very rewarding.

Chesterton writes about the way mankind has watched the stars. The panorama of stars at night has been an encounter with transcendence since time immemorial. It has spawned mythologies, stories, and legends. He sees the primordial myth as the belief in some “great sky god,” which over time becomes developed into a whole pantheon of deities, heroes, and the like. On the other hand, he points out that the night sky has also inspired the work of astronomers and physicists. The movement of the stars has been a fascinating mystery for scholars to puzzle out.

I think of this as an “Epiphany” reflection because he connects this with the two groups that come and encounter the infant Christ—the shepherds and the Magi. The shepherds represent a group that probably sat around the campfire at night looking at the stars, and can embody the first sort of seeker described above. In their stories and mythologies about the constellations there is an expression of a desire to encounter an otherworldly creature here among us. The mythologies bring the transcendent down to earth and make it tangible (even if only in imagination). The Magi are also star-gazers, but with a different desire. They have some study of the nature of the movement of the stars, but have been moved to a deeper question. Beyond just wanting to know *how* the stars are moving, they want to know *why.* What is the significance of this new star that they have seen? This inspires them on their journey.

Both find the answer in Bethlehem. The Shepherds encounter God-with-us, Emmanuel—not just in the imagination but in the flesh! Likewise, the Magi encounter the deeper meaning to which their study has led them. Both groups have moved from an experience of wonder (the stars of heaven), to a search (one by imagination and another by study), and finally to an encounter.

This presentation by Chesterton always reminds me of the saying, “atheism began with the invention of the street light.” In other words, as light pollution in cities blocked our ability to see the stars, we lost the sense of the transcendent. The deeper questions don’t matter as much as we are consumed with everyday things. This isn’t to say that the astrology/mythologies inspired by the stars are a sufficient argument for God left to themselves, but they are a spark to the search. The awe that they inspired led the Magi to the *search,* which led them to the encounter. The Magi had real questions, and wanted to search for the fullest answer. I think this teaches us that having questions about God/faith/etc is not necessarily a bad thing. It isn’t something that we just have to hold without thought or reflection. Instead, those questions can lead to encounter. Too often, though, we let the questions die on the vine. We don’t follow them far enough. Often “questioning my faith” means at best reading a couple of Facebook articles or something (I recognize the irony of writing that on a blog that links through social media!). What we need is the search of the Magi, that followed the question. We need to spend time with the best and most profound explanations available—whether by speaking with a knowledgeable person, reading a book, listening to talks, etc. This is how we truly engage the question.

What about us—what questions do we have? How have we followed them? Through them, may we seek an encounter with the Lord.

What is my favorite Christmas movie?

There are plenty of Christmas movies that I enjoy and highly recommend, but with no doubt my favorite is the Muppet Christmas Carol. I have watched it every year for quite some time, and it is always as good (or better!) than I remember. It has become part of our family tradition. At some point, after the Masses and dinner, we gather and watch it together. I love the songs and humor. I love the joy of Fozziwig’s party (and excellent commentary by Statler and Waldorf). But, what I think sets it apart is the way that it combines these elements with the spiritual depth of Dickens’ original work. The narrator (Gonzo) and Scrooge (Michael Caine) largely follow the words of the book, which adds a seriousness that blends very well with the fun. It continues to inspire me to conversion of life and to the joy that comes from living the Gospel. If you get chance, check it out. God bless!