There was a wedding in… Downton

Wedding Feast at Cana Yesterday morning, the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, we heard proclaimed from John’s Gospel the third part of the great theophany triptych—the epiphany, the baptism, and the fist sign—namely the account of the wedding feast at Cana. And last night we joined millions in watching the wedding of Mr. Carson and Ms. née Hughes of Downton Abbey. I was struck by a great many similarities in these stories and it is not merely in that both were nuptial celebrations.

I have often used the story of the wedding feast of Cana to open formation events with liturgical ministers pointing out to them that it was the servants, not the others, who knew from whence the wine-transformed-from-water had come. While all feasted on the glorious banquet it was only to those who had humbly done as the Lord invited them that his glory was revealed. With liturgical ministers I always try to help them connect this with their own experience of assisting at the sacred liturgy where, profoundly aware of our own ordinariness we have been, through no great accomplishment which we can claim, be invited and elevated to serve as a servant of the Lord. Like the water, a sign of the human, we are turned toward divinity, our true telos. It was not by accident that John has the servants draw the water from the enormous ceremonial ablution basins (“jars for washing”). This great moment of revealing Jesus’ identity prepares us for the mercy of God which is made known through our own quotidian sinfulness. As the servants dipped into those waters by which is signified our need for purification they see it redeemed and transformed, made the best of wine because it has been humbled and in turn glorified. And this was his first sign.

Mr. and Mrs. Carson's wedding As I watched Mr. and Mrs. Carson prepare for and celebrate their marriage in the Downton School House it struck me that the glory of Downton was most revealed there, outside of the great house, in this public space by these humble servants. There a man and woman, both dignified in their life of service, entering into a union unsullied by those oft-failed unions of the great house—which albeit make the show so interesting to watch. Purified as it were of their entanglements each was washed clean of their respective sense of unworthiness to live their own full life, binding them a little too close to the house. Mr. and Mrs. Carson, ironically as the servants, thus reveal the greatest nobility of the house. These servants are honored as the nobles enter their life rather than is so often portrayed the other way around. The surprise return of the former chauffeur, Tom Branson, who enters now as a member of the household to which he seeks readmission (are we now in Luke 15?), seems to confirm this as the joy of the wedding banquet is both increased and yet shifted off in some measure from the Carsons’ union to encompass all.

It is not of course a perfect parallel but I found some interesting similarities between the revelation of Christ through the obedience of the servants as this denouement season of the Downton Abbey series portending the future glory of the great house through the servants, all too cognizant of their own simplicity, being themselves elevated and showing the true glory of the Downton Abbey with which so many are captivated. What do you think? Are there really any similarities?

Song of the Sea

Yesterday afternoon Michelle and I took our son to his first cinematic experience as the four of us went to see Song of the Sea at the Guild. I have been excited to see this film since Irish director Tomm Moore’s first film, The Secret of Kells, captivated me and I learned of his concept for a second feature length animation. The animation was once again spellbinding and, together with the music by Bruno Coulais and Kíla, leads the viewer on a visually stunning trek through the Irish world of desolate coasts, bountiful pastures and woods, the confining city, and deep into the enchanted world beneath the sídhe. Without giving away too much of the plot, Song of the Sea once again breathes new life into an ancient Irish tale, this time telling the story of a young lad, Ben, who discovers his younger sister, Saoirse, is a selkie, a seal woman who sheds her seal skin as she emerges onto land. Together Ben and Saoirse must not only unlock the mission entrusted to the latter to sing the Song of the Sea which will liberate those who have been turned to stone but also deal with their own emotional trauma by rooting their sibling relationship in the shared mission. “Song of the Sea challenges us to face our fears, embrace death and human frailty, walk in wonder, and return home as transformed beings” (from Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat).

Like the Song of the Sea in scripture (alternatively known as the Song of Moses or the Song of Miriam from Exodus 15) which is sung each year at the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night as a remembrance of the past works of salvation as well as a prefiguring of the baptism into which the elect are to be plunged, the film Song of the Sea reminds us that liberation from suffering comes not by removing suffering but rather by passing through the suffering with hope in the resurrection. Moreover, Exodus 15 and Song of the Sea both hearken to the importance of the ancient lore, the oldest stories learned as song at the feet of the wise seanchaí or the prophet(ess). One thinks readily also of Tolkien’s Music of the Ainur. While I would not describe the film as explicitly Christian in character and am sure others will write off Song of the Sea as a neo-pagan world inhabited with faeries and the like, I found the paschal dimension of the story very prominent. For example, when [spoiler alert] Ben chooses to risk his own life in order to save his sister who then rises from (near) death to liberate creation that is groaning for redemption we see both Ben and Saoirse as Christ-like figures. And, as one who bridges the hitherto divided worlds of humanity and faeries, Saoirse is a mediator who, in her turn, chooses to remain to dwell among humankind and in her weakness becomes a force for reconciliation. While the main backdrop of the film is the luminous and enchanted world of Irish folklore the small presence of recognizable artifacts of Ireland’s Catholic heritage, such as the iconography in Ben and Saoirse’s grandmother’s home, a holy well, and a gated church are likewise reminders that this world which we see with our eyes is not all there is. Even when those institutions which once brought our ancestors face to face with the mysterium tremendum et fascinans have been shuttered and our vision has dimmed as our stony hearts have been sealed shut against the numinous, such a beautiful and good story as Song of the Sea can give us new eyes and train our voices to sing anew the memory of hope. Song of the Sea reminds us that there is so much more than the visible and when we open ourselves to that infinite horizon, mediated to us sacramentally through the beauty of creation, we are enabled to more fully be grasped by that beauty, even ancient, ever new.

Here’s the trailer for Song of the Sea:

Once Upon a Time: Reflecting on Myth and Hope

In these last weeks of Eastertide I have happened upon the TV miniseries Once Upon a Time. I’m only a half dozen or so episodes into the series but have found the premise and presentation both enjoyable and insightful. For those who may not know of the series (though its not exactly new) the premise is that just about every imaginable character from beloved Western fairy tales, who are all mashed up together, are exiled from their idyllic fairy tale kingdom only to be imprisoned to live in a modern American town. All of this happens as a result of a curse intended to take away their happiness. Each person in the town is, or at least once was, a fairy tale character. In scriptural or Platonic language we would say that each person is a ‘type’ of the archetype fairy tale character.

The curse which afflicts them all is amnesia which in Once Upon a Time is experienced as a dark fog of forgetfulness unleashed through jealousy and murder stirred together with a little unsavory magic which rolls in and chokes out any memory of the world as it really is—or at least once was and therefore could be once more. In a psychological sense we might say they all are living with the suppressed experience of who they once were or even false ideologies/delusions which produce false narratives all of a self not grounded in reality or in continuity. What struck me immediately is the parallel between this problem at the crux of the mythologic structure of Once Upon a Time and that of the Christian narrative which mythologizes the same estrangement of humanity from God and one another and the concomitant loss of happiness as a banishment from paradise (Gn 3, Gn 11, Gn 37) which resulted from grasping for power and which always leads to murder (Gn 4, Gn 37:20).

Having set up the mythologic problem to be solved Once Upon a Time, like the Judeo-Christian narratives, understands the antidote to forgetfulness, amnesia, to be remembering—what Christians do as anamnesis (borrowing the term from Plato) and Jews call zikaron/memorial. In Christian eucharistic liturgy the anamnesis is the part of the anaphora (“the carrying back”)/Eucharistic Prayer wherein “fulfilling the command that [the Church] received from Christ the Lord through the Apostles, [she] celebrates the memorial of Christ, recalling especially his blessed Passion, glorious Resurrection, and Ascension into heaven” (GIRM 79e). In the different Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite you can recognize this anamnetic moment by the words, “Therefore, [O Lord,] as we celebrate the memorial…” (emphasis added) though in some regard the whole of not only the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the Mass) but also the entire sacramental system of Christian liturgy is anamnetic insofar as it recalls and makes present the Paschal Mystery into which we have been immersed in our baptism. Celebrating the memorial, remembering who we are and how we have been ransomed, is thus the counter to amnesia, that action by which the Holy Spirit restores our collective memory of who(se) we are, and undoes the spell of exile and banishment which futilely endeavors to make us unhappy. In Once Upon a Time it is the boy (prophet?), Henry, who has been given some revelation in a text, revelation which allows him to remember himself and everyone else in his life into the forgotten narrative and thus discern the true world which they (are called to) inhabit.

Though I am, as I said, not far into Once Upon a Time another interesting parallel is already emerging in my opinion between, the figure of Emma who is, it is foretold, the one who will break the curse of amnesia, “bring back the happy endings,” and with Christ who breaks the prison bars of death and invites us into intimacy with him in remembering. I don’t want to push the parallel too far but at minimum we see a willing condescension taking place: Henry notes that Emma is the only one who could choose to escape being confined into the town and yet chooses not to grasp after that power, albeit not without some internal struggle, but rather to remain with the forgetful people even if only at first for the sake of the one. Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8) thus reversing the curse of death and estrangement and, moreover, commanding that we partake of him, the ripe fruit of the true vine hanging upon the new tree of life planted atop Calvary (see John 6:53-58) thus also reversing the interdiction of Genesis 2:17 and entrusting the Church with a perpetual memorial so that never again would forgetfulness cloud out the saving work of redemption (see also 1 Cor 11:23-26). Emma’s heroism is ultimately shown, not without its rough edges and gritty back-story, not unlike that of Christ, to be fighting evil not with more evil, but with good, confident that good cannot be polluted by coming into contact with evil but rather leave it locked up, frozen in itself.

In presenting the back story of each of the characters as they struggle with contemporary problems Once Upon a Time tacks back and forth between scenes of what was and what is now. It is a way of presenting the story, I find, which fosters imagination—perhaps even a liturgical imagination. The sacraments, we recall, are outward signs that not only point to but also effect the mysteries they make present. And so, just as the liturgy juxtaposes the raw material of the world as we see it with the unaided eye—bread, oil, water, broken people—with the world as God sees it—his own Body, his own Spirit, the cleansing power of redemption, and those fashioned in the image of his own Son—in order to give us a share in that enlightened way of seeing the world, Once Upon a Time likewise juxtaposes modern persons living seemingly ordinary, mundane lives with the fairy tales in which is held out the promise that their lives might take on more than mere muddling through. This allows us, the viewer, to see how these contemporary persons, so like us in many ways, are in fact living out the types revealed in the fairy tales. And just as arranged encounters with persons and artifacts in Once Upon a Time not only jog memories but also in so doing alter the world through the choices the characters make in response to this re-cognition, so in a similar way do the efficacious signs of the sacraments remake the world in which we live by reconnecting us not so much with a past event but with an eternal reality of the Paschal Mystery definitively revealed through the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ in (real historic) time (that is not in abstracted ‘once upon a time’ non-time).

In one of my favorite scenes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, an exchange around which the late and beloved John Dunne, csc built a graduate semester course in narrative theology, Samwise asks Frodo whether he thinks others will ever tell their tale and together they wonder what sort of story they have fallen into. And is this not the fundamental question we need to solve: What stories are we living in? For in knowing these stories, discovering through imaginative works like Once Upon a Time and beginning to inhabit the great story of our salvation in the sacred liturgy our lives begin to be lived into these narratives, these myths which are not untruths but rather the most profound truths we too often forget in a collective amnesia. As Tolkien wrote, reflecting on Faerie Stories, “The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending.’ The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”

Post Script: A high school classmate now teaching classics at the University of Puget Sound posted this interesting story about a Seattle-based group using Ancient warrior myths to help veterans fight PTSD, fostering hope by allowing the wound to speak.

Reveling in the Book of Kells

Miniature of Aisling helping Brendan find and pick oak berries which Aidan needs to illuminate The Book of KellsI just finished watching The Secret of Kells at the Chelsea.  As one involved in evangelization and especially as a one who draws inspiration from (or is infatuated with) the monastic tradition I was impressed with the amazing Paschal themes of Brother Brendan going down into the underworld, chaining the forces of darkness and death, bringing light into the world even through using what some might have considered evil, choosing the spiritual over the pragmatic, and so forth—all without saying anything about Gospel or Christ or therein except Brendan’s working on the Chi Ro page. And even without a word about sacraments and only shadows of a church depicted the whole enchanted existence brought to life a world truly permeated with grace.

Of course, as everyone who has seen the film has noted, the visuals were phenomenal. The last three minutes, when the Book of Kells come alive, was incredibly striking and capped off the whole thing in a way I think anyone would enjoy—not just those of us who relish monk movies (such as others I have enjoyed seeing at the Chelsea). It felt like we were joining Abbot Cellach in seeing a foretaste of heaven as he recognized in the Book of Kells the true patrimony of Celtic Christianity and then passed into his own beatific vision of a new creation.

My experience of watching the film was made all the richer by having seen The Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin when visiting Michelle in Ireland ten years ago as well as memories of gazing at the perfect facsimile housed where I studied in the Medieval Institute at Notre Dame.

Watching the lavishness of such a film around a book (a book of the Word nonetheless), I made connections to the importance of the physicality of the book from which mere text had not yet been separated and lifted, a point articulated in the first section of Studzinski’s Reading to Live about which I wrote briefly following my retreat. And there are, of course, tie-ins to the beautiful St John’s Bible which we use as our Gospel book on solemnities at Saint Thomas More.

Finally, as one trained in anthropology, I found the ecstatic vision quest elements, the syncretism of Celtic or pagan ideas with Christianity, and the explicit use of nature and revelation as complimentary and reinforcing sources of knowledge (the Book of Creation and the Book of Scripture) bouncing through my head as the scenes unfolded.

But my heart, as Blase Pascal might have said, had reasons for delighting in The Secret of Kells of which reason knows nothing. And I suspect you will too.

Moloch versus Maria

Sometime last month, during the same time that I was facilitating a STEP course on the Book of Revelation, I watched Metropolis, a fascinating German silent film from 1927 which is billed not only as the first but one of the finest dystopian films. Today, as the doors were opened to Khalifa Tower, the tallest man-made structure in the world, it seems appropriate to finish this post I started writing after watching the film.

Metropolis is set in an all-encompassing skyscraper representing the Tower of Babel, the story of which is the only of the primordial stories in Genesis which is not directly resolved but rather awaits the particularistic blessing of Abraham that then flows through to others. Abraham, recall, is taken out of Ur, the land of the first cities and giant ziggurats. Later the Hebrews are lead from where they were enslaved in the manufacture of bricks for the Egyptian pharaoh’s temples. Metropolis seems to be posing the question, Is it possible to build a grand tower without Egyptian-style dehumanizing slavery? According to the film, evidently not. The scriptures, beginning with the liberation of the Hebrew from Egyptian captivity and running right through to the poor estimation given even the centralized kings of Israel seem to be opposed to increased social stratification (which archaeologists and anthropologists take as a mark of higher society) and indicate that God’s choice is for the small, the weak, the disinherited—God, it seems, prefers small-scale (or subsidiary) existence.

One of the key moments in Metropolis comes when Fredder, the son of the creator (or at least sustainer) of the Metropolis, realizes that while he is living an Eden-like existence up above that the workers are down below laboring to maintain the Metropolis. Fredder declares, I want to see my brothers and begins his condescension among them (see Barth). What Fredder ends up seeing in this, apart from the obvious Christ-like incarnation he undertakes, is that he is his brother’s keeper, answering that age old question God asks of Cain when he has just killed his brother. Though the initial placards Metropolis declare the film to not have a political agenda, the lesson of solidarity is clearly central to the development of the plot.

Fredder encounters Moloch when he first goes below: the machines of industry immolate the children of God, killing many workers as he witnesses an explosion. Fredder tries to intervene and help but his father’s servants whisk Fredder out of harm’s way and tempt him to put the whole thing out of his mind. But Fredder cannot forget the suffering of his brothers in which he has now shared. The whole thing seems to be a great allegory for the Incarnation, especially in light of the fact that the heroine of Metropolis, Maria, is the one who most fights against the dehumanization of the workers and tries to offer them hope against the mechanized innovations of Doctor Rotwang who in the end even concocts a “fake” Maria to delude the workers.

In the ancient catacombs below even the abysmal depths of the worker’s city Maria gathers the faithful together and tells the story of how Babel conceived slaves and offers hope for their liberation. In a liturgy wherein she is the priestess, Maria conveys the central message of Metropolis: we need the heart as mediator between brain and hands. This is itself symbolized in the two classes formed in Metropolis, namely the above-ground thinkers and the below-ground workers, with the former knowing nothing of the latter until Fredder, through the urging of Maria, descended among the workers to suffer with them, while the latter have no understanding of the rational vision created by Fredder’s father, the founder of the Metropolis until Fredder conveys it to them. Once this divide is broken the workers are able to be liberated from their enslavement and the elites are likewise liberated from their blindness. This is very resonant with John’s Gospel, wherein Jesus declares to his apostles that they are “no longer slaves, for you know what I am doing.” Like the people in darkness, the underground workers are awaiting a mediator, a messiah, in this case Fredder.

The adversary, Dr Rotwang, is a fascinating character whose moral compass is guided by the question “Is it possible?” without regard for whether a given things should be done, culminating with his replacement of humans by machines. Among those things which he has concocted is the featured “metric” clock which rewrites the conception of time to where there is no night or day, no natural rhythm, and—most tellingly—no Sabbath! Later, with his piercing light, he pursues the real Maria even until the underground sanctuary (like the beast pursuing Mary into the desert in Revelation) in order to setup the false Maria-robot in her place, one who is not like the workers and possess no heart/soul. The whole mechanical system zaps the soul out of people, turning them into expendable and substitutable (fungible) commodities, killing the self.

Maria, who is meant to be the one who tells the story (the Church) and keeps the people vigilant until the end of time (the coming of the mediator) is substituted for the robot Maria who becomes a temptress (like the contrast between the two women in the Book of Revelation) as she tries to shake Fredder from obeying the vision he has, the vision of saving the workers which he first came to through Maria.

Fredder does not give in. The robot-Maria, however, urges the workers to rebellion and they tear asunder the very foundations of Metropolis. The Seven Deadly Sins, statues strangely erected in the underground sanctuary, come to life when all hell breaks loose through the false prophet, the mechanical Maria, who, in convincing the workers that they have no hope, perverts the workers into acting upon these sins with great violence. (Note that, despite all the violent language in the Book of Revelation, among humans it is only the evil ones take up arms. The saints leave their vindication to God alone). Though the workers are right in their cries of injustice they have taken matters into their own hands rather than awaiting their vindicator, Fredder. As the floods (chaos) are unleashed, the real Maria becomes the center of a raft (the one around whom the Church, the bark, gathers) taking the people across the sea and into safety (like the Miriam of the passover who, with her brothers, lead the people across the dry land God caused to appear in the midst of the bloody sea) and out of slavery/bondage. In the end Fredder sacrifices his life to see this raft to safety and the workers are, around Maria, brought to safety. Returned to his father, Fredder offers a new vision of the Metropolis, a vision where the heart mediates between brain and hands.

Metropolis raises many questions for the viewer—or at least for me. What are we enslaved to? How can we be credible signs of Christ alive? How can we give hope to others? Can we birth Christ into a world that seems so bereft of hope, a world that seems all too committed to the Metropolis, a system of exploitation and injustice, even as we await the fullness of redemption? Can we cooperate with the one who will make all things right while not assuming we must do it ourselves and therefore bring about our own demise?

How Deep is your Love?

In the midst of this Easter season it seems most timely that I just finished watching a film that many would be surprised at my calling a redemption story, although the twists and turns exemplify what Wendell Berry would consider practicing resurrection. Adams æbler (Adam’s Apples) is a Danish dark comedy from 2005 in which Ivan, the pastor of an otherwise idyllic small parish in the countryside, has taken it upon himself to care for those whom the world has abandoned, including Adam, a recently paroled neo-Nazi convict. To say that Ivan is in denial or delusional would be an understatement and miss the profundity of his deep (or misguided?) love. To say that Adam (representing all humanity, of course) is evil and unredeemable would also miss the strength of an apple pie (baked wisdom?). Other themes in the film replicate the power of the Paschal mystery—the life, death, and resurrection of Christ—placing it within reach in our world. Sacrifice, even at the cost of a life and though blood outpoured for another, redeems others and gives them a second chance at abundant life. That the film ends surprisingly as it does, however, is proof (even situated within an absurd film that requires a willing suspension of disbelief) that a witness of deep love can bring new life, hope, and further love in a dark, broken, and hurt world. Like both Ivan and Adam, we all stand in need of redemption; Adams æbler helps us not only see that through the follies of such extreme characters but also to recognize that, if it is possible for them, it is most certainly possible for us. As the film ends with the Bee Gees’ recurring overture that fills the film, asking How Deep is your Love?, the camera turns to us as if asking to what lengths we’re willing to go in order to redeem others and ourselves. How deep is your love?

The Namesake

From where does your name come? Where do you call your home? Does your origin have anything to do with your destiny? These profound questions are addressed in director Mira Nair’s (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair, Mississippi Masala, et al.) latest and to date most profound film, The Namesake (2006). In under two hours The Namesake (based on Jhumpa Lahiritakes’ novel of the same title) ferries the viewer on a journey through the lives of two generations of a Bengali’s family’s discovery of their origin and their future.

In brief, the film opens with the miraculous rescue of the patriarch, Asoka, from a train accident that took place while he was on his way to visit his grandfather in 1970s India. From a chance encounter with both a stranger in the same car and a book of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol’s work given him by his grandfather, Asoka ends up in New York studying literature. In short order he is matched with a woman more than his equal in her mastery of classical music, Ashima, to whom he ends up happily married. The second miracle of Asoka’s life, the birth of his first-born son, Gogol, unfolds in a second but closely related drama as Gogol searches for his own identity both as an Indian and an American. For those familiar with Bollywood films Nair included a number of episodes that will leave you in stitches, including the portrayal of Gogol’s honeymoon with a sophisticated British-reared Bengali woman with whom his multiple encounters took place due to his mother’s arrangement.

For such a short film, Mira Nair takes the viewer on a surprisingly complex journey in which I certainly empathized with nearly all the characters. All of this was of course helped by the fact that the film score included pieces from the latest album (Music for Crocodiles) by one of my favorite artists—Susheela Raman—including the song over the credits which rather seemed to provide a sort of overture for the whole film. The Same Song is, like the film, the musings of one who feels displaced from a true home and yet unable to make a new home anywhere. And while this is indeed the plight (or fortune, as the case may be) of so many in the contemporary world, it seems to me that it is also the plight of those of us who truly feel the weight of being distanced from our true homeland while at the same time invited to make our home in this world.

In sheer coincidence, I’m pleased we watched The Namesake during the USCCB‘s National Migration Week. The portrayal of the emotional difficulties encountered by all those who leave their homelands for the good of others, usually their children, serves to humanize those whom even the most hard-hearted would likely ignore. And, as ever, the amazing qualities of Mira Nair’s superb direction continues to enchant me as does the music of Susheela Raman. Nair’s eye for visual settings, juxtaposition of worlds, character development, and ability to enrapture an audience is unrivaled. If you have not yet done so, check out The Namesake and spend some time asking yourself where your call your home, towards what horizon you should drift, and wondering what you should call your own. Perhaps your answer, like mine and Gogol’s, is to be found in your namesake!