A Sweeping Review of Downton Abbey

Because he wants to avoid writing about the romantic mundaneness of a contented couple, Julian Fellowes takes the viewer through unnecessary and illogical plot twists, tormenting the characters most deserving of mercy. When a character is well-rounded, and the details of his or her life filled in, the plot lines tend to write themselves. In an interview regarding Dan Steven’s, who played Matthew Crawley, departure from Downton Abbey, Fellowes stated, “nothing is harder to dramatise than happiness. When two people are happy, that’s it.”

So we’ve seen with Fellowes’ treatment of John and Anna Bates, the couple who won’t die and he won’t allow to be happy. As I read reviews and recaps of episodes this appears to be the chief complaint, along with Lady Mary’s ability to impeccably act out man’s inhumanity to man.

Fellows wrote Mr. and Mrs. Bates to be virtuous characters, full of good will, who have seen hard time and find in each other a blessed relief, a kindred spirit. They remind each other and call each other on in virtue. To see this couple continually beset upon invokes uproar among viewers because they deserve some relief. When we see the innocent suffer in real life, we get angry with God, though God is not guilt. When we see the Bates’ suffer in Downton Abbey, we get angry with Fellowes, and well we should.

Their troubles are unrealistic and out-of-sync with the characters that have been created for them. Mr. Bates married unwisely and so had to face terrible circumstances that came out of that. Upon his release, upon their reunion and move into a cottage, what would logically happen? They might have had children; they might have faced illness. They face difficulties the world throws at them; they face it together; they become stronger for it. When they do it with style and wit, the viewer is engaged, happy and entertained.

In the first three seasons it was simple to be carried along by the stories as they were engaging, beautifully styled and wonderfully acted. Upon the sentimental, orchestrated death of Matthew Crawley, who unwisely looked up at the sky in joy as he went on his way (he did not watch how the lead died in City of Angels, it seems), I became acutely aware of the puppet master, trying to make work Stevens’ professional decision to leave the show. When Anna was raped, I became frustrated. It was done for drama, because to just leave the Bates’ alone to be happy, would be too dull for J. Fellowes. What a shame.

I love the look of the show. As many others, I’m mad about the clothes and the setting. I keep going back despite deep dissatisfaction. It’s a missed opportunity. Fellowes had wonderful characters. We might possibly be witness to a softening of Thomas’ spirit through Baxter (who, like Molesley, like the Bates’, like Tom, deserve all the goodness that can come to them).

Speaking of missed opportunities, especially opportunities to create drama, whatever happened to Rose’s wild days? While Mary had to account again and again for her fall from virtue, Rose never seemed to have looked back. It seems a strange plot hole to me, but as Fellowes himself said, perhaps more about his perspective than his viewers, in Downton Abbey: Text Santa “nobody cares.”

I hope in the next series, Fellowes will lighten his hand and allow the mundane moments of one maid instructing another on how to fluff pillows without an attitude shine through. There are so many moments of inspiration in this show, and so much that can be done with the wonderful characters he has created. I just hope he will take the time to let them show through.

Reflection on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 5, Talk 3

We come to the final section of Josef Pieper’s book, Only the Lover Sings, a series of reflections on art and contemplation. Follow the links to read my reflections on Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4. Below is my reflection on the third talk of this final section.

Vita Contemplativa—The Contemplative Life

Contemplation, c. 1875 by Thomas Couture (French, 1815 – 1879)

What is contemplation?

“It’s immediate and direct meaning indicates seeing, beholding, perceiving some reality

“…To contemplate means first of all to see—and not to think!

“…Also contains a special intensified way of seeing. – The gift of retaining and preserving in one’s own memory whatever has been visually perceived.”

“…it certainly perceives more than mere appearances.”

To see and not to think. Thus are more of the Church’s mystics women rather than men. There is something in the nature of woman that enables her to simply sit, to enjoy, to delight. She does it most naturally with her children, perhaps in a quieter age. So this features opens her up more easily to contemplate, to actively receive, to see the divine. Man is able as well, but woman has a particular inclination to simply sit and watch and see. Typically, man would analyze, and act.

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See how she delights in nature, while he is actively destroying it.

I am not so simply made that I think this is always the case. My incredible levels of energy cause me to do quite often. But I see between my husband and myself a difference. Although I am the achiever and one more likely to want to discuss, between us, I am the one who can more easily sit with the children, just sit, not think, just be and watch.

This piercing of the word contemplation also calls to mind my work, as in an earlier section. I must sit and contemplate the information and the person presented to me.

“The eyes see better when guided by love; a new dimension of “seeing” is opened up by love alone! And this means contemplation is visual perception prompted by loving acceptance!”

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Vincent VanGogh, Women Miners Carrying Coal, 1881-82

“And yet, nothing in this affirming closeness to reality smacks of false idealization, nothing is embellished as if all reality were wholesome and without rough edges.”

I think back to an earlier reflection on the art of the work I do, working with people. I must see them as they are, with love, in order to give them what will really help them. It is not uncommon for me by myself to take a moment after meeting with a troubled client to contemplate the story they have shared. I do not analyze it. I take it in, I let it “simmer” so to speak. Inspiration comes.

“Those who have seen enough…who are satisfied with the outward appearance of things, may easily be content with contriving some smooth and crowd-pleasing yet shallow fabrication.”

 I hear stories often about therapists who have not been helpful, who have rambled or given simple strategies but not fully entered into the story the client has shared. I suppose they have seen enough.

We cannot contemplate in a crowd. It calls for silence, for us to be alone. I have always needed to see art alone. I am an extrovert. I am too inclined too talk, too inclined to awareness of the feelings of those around me. When I am alone, I could stay and look and remember that the art evokes. I could really take time for prayer.

the mission:

If we grant Pieper the truth of his statements, art becomes a teaching tool for children. If children are surrounded by beautiful art and given space from technology and media, they will have the opportunity to recall, to allow the great art to resonate inside them before they even have words to recognize it. They will be too young to sit and contemplate. But if we believe it to be true, opportunities will create a greater facility to contemplate and to love, to understand deeper mysteries of the universe. It is a tall order, but if we believe it to be true, it can do great things.

It will do great things if we allow our senses to be restored to the real. First, the church’s were stripped of their art, their tactile and aural references to the divine. Second, technology came about to help facilitate active participation by project song lyrics on the blank wall. The artist in me recoils at the thought! When people desired some color or change to the building, they hung plain banners, for art had grown too foreign and expensive in the culture. Or too ugly.

But art has great power. Harnessing that power, bringing art and beauty back into the life of the Everyman, we can re-awake his consciousness to the divine. He can see again and be reminded that life is more than simply the task at hand or the news on the screen. There could be hope. There could be joy. There could be a festival.

Reflection on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 5, Talk 2

We come to the final section of Josef Pieper’s book, Only the Lover Sings, a series of reflections on art and contemplation. Follow the links to read my reflections on Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4. Below is my reflection on the second talk of this final section.

Those “Guests at the Festival”

In the first section of Only the Lover Sings, Pieper explores the nature of a feast and the ability to celebrate a feast. He described the “festive contemplation of universal realities and their sustaining reasons” as the key to leisure. In this section he tells us, the festive character is “at the same time the remembrance of primordial bliss and the anticipation of future fulfillment.” It is for this task we need the poet and the artist. Understanding the celebration of feasts, Pieper finds the “connection between fine arts and festival becomes evident. Both build on a loving acceptance of the world and of human existence.”

“What good are poets in barren times?” he quotes. Indeed. This line strikes me, as Pieper interprets these barren times to be those times when we have lost the ability to celebrate a feast, to be at leisure, to contemplate our original state, the purpose for which we live, and the promise that lies before us. I feel myself living in these barren times.

In a rural land, little time is spent in such leisurely pursuits. The questions seem superfluous to many, as do the arts. Why would you drive a distance, spend two hours listening to an orchestra when you could be home, doing something? Music in the liturgy becomes utilitarian, meant for people to participate, rather than an instrument to lead us to contemplation. Barren times. When one is struggling to fulfill the bottom levels of the hierarchy of needs, he cannot see any benefit to those spiritual pursuits which seem so distant from his immediate needs.

And yet, we are not so rural here. We go to grocery stores, have neighbors within fifty feet, do not own livestock. Yet the mindset persists. It can be so difficult for an artist to find their place in a town, where neither religion or community tradition occupy the central space of culture, only existence, one step to the next, one click to the next, mindlessly, numbingly walking through life without stopping observe the flowers in bloom or the warmth of the sun. Barren times.

The hierarchy of needs it not fully accurate because we are made by God. Therefore the spiritual can imbue each level with life, making up for deficits. Suffering at each level becomes filled with meaning and is then bearable. So art and beauty at any level are a benefit to man, they can remind him of a life worth fighting for.

Reflection on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 5, Talk 1

We come to the final section of Josef Pieper’s book, Only the Lover Sings, a series of reflections on art and contemplation. Follow the links to read my reflections on Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4. In my attempt to finish this reflection, I come to realize I need to divide my posts it into two separate reflections.

Three talks in a sculptor’s studio

On a special occasion, Pieper presents this series of three talks in the studio of a sculptor. In his first talk, he considers the mythology of the Muses, who inspire remembrance. Remembrance of what?

“Something that all too readily is ignored and “lost”—precisely because it is ‘different’ —yet must not be forgotten if our existence is to remain truly human.”

Art evokes a memory in us of paradise, of what it truly means to be human. As there are “large areas of reality in danger of being thus forgotten” the role of the artist is revealed with greater depth.

“Here we somehow sense the artist’s inner relationship to the priest, who is called, above all, to keep alive the remembrance of a face that our intuition just barely perceives behind all immediate and tangible reality—the face of the God-man, bearing the marks of a shameful execution.”

Goethe refers to the artist as “someone called to be the custodian and eager herald of an avowed sacred reality.”

First, the artist:

What a massive undertaking! The risk of distraction, losing direction and aim arises. An artist may have great technical skill, but if the artwork lacks substance, “such a product, above all, contains no remembrance nor any power to elicit remembrance, and thus has nothing to do with the Muses.” The artist must shield himself from the numbing of thought and attention that occurs when one takes in the culture and the life on the internet and the endless onslaught of images. A good artist would have to take to the hills or to the sea; to seek solitude as Anne Morrow Lindbergh reminds us, in order to reach that quiet place inside oneself, where one can breathe and create again. We cannot remember in constant noise. We cannot create. We must retreat. The artist will not find his muse without the quiet of his studio, his interior hide-a-way.

What if he does not? What is the danger other than banality? Ugliness. And I don’t mean modernity, but the kind of image that makes one desire to turn away and erase it from their mind. Because art is a powerful thing. The ugliness by an artist who has ceased to believe that life matters, that there is purpose and meaning, invites the viewer into his emptiness and says “you belong here too.”

I think there is devastating art by artists full of despair, but their art reveals a longing for something greater.

It is that art which has no longing that hurts us, that I refer to. Sigrid Undset is a beloved author of mine, author of Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken. Before those novels, before her conversion, she wrote a novel called Jenny. I would describe the plot as watching the deterioration of a young woman, and it is devastating. Undset’s insight into the person is remarkable, but at the end I am shaken. I experienced a similar feeling after watching Revolutionary Road, a film about the deterioration of a marriage.

Second, the viewer:

Turning from the ugly to the banal. We can recognize such art. If one is sensitive to this sight, or remembrance, he or she will find that art without substance evokes nothing. It leaves us empty, without reaction.

It’s nice, but does it leave us with any other feeling? Doesn’t our Lady look bored? I imagine the church goers who feel the same. They simply sit. Nothing stirs them. Some preachers simply speak louder and for a moment might have their attention. But when the preacher’s speech is banal, the viewer settles back into his pew.

When in town to interview for graduate school, I wandered around the Smithsonian museum. I happened upon a replica of this piece, The Kiss. I was so struck by it, I paused and took it in. Oughtn’t I be embarrassed by it? But I was not. It was beautiful, striking, and spoke to something deep inside. The passion with which she holds him, the delicacy of his hand which slightly touches her, but will not grasp. The artist, inspired by his muse, whether he realizes it or not, recalls the original innocence and self-gift John Paul II illuminates in the Theology of the Body. I do not think I have ever seen a more beautiful statue, and this photograph hardly does it justice.

I should use a closer comparison to the bored Virgin Mary, now. Below is Bouguereau’s Piet, which you can see in San Francisco’s Legion of Honor.

Bouguereau’s Piet

Great art must be view in person. It is only in person that can you can be drawn into the depth of her suffering in her eyes, into the largeness of her suffering by examining the weight of Christ upon her. This is art with substance, which recalls, which invokes.

Reflections on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 4

Below you find my reflection on the fourth section, titled Music and Silence, of Josef Pieper’s book, Only the Lover Sings. Click here for reflections on Chapter 1, Chapter 2 and Chapter 3.

Music and Silence

“Music opens up a great, perfectly dimensioned space of silence within which, when things come about happily, a reality can dawn which ranks higher than music.”

Music creates a listening silence wherein we are opened up to the divine. It clears the channel of noise, distraction and thought so we might receive.

1 Kings 19:11-13

11 And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. 13 And when Eli′jah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Eli′jah?”

God is to be heard in the quiet, in the receptive, listening silence.

This is why music is essential to the liturgy. Youth programs such as Life Teen and the National Evangelization Team understand this powerful role of music to lift the heart to God. It seems the music one encounters at a typical Sunday liturgy ignores this fact. Jennifer Fitz, who is wonderful at saying it as it is, acknowledges part of the problem is choice. Some parishioners or priests, whoever it is who makes these decisions at some parishes simply do not want better music. We have experienced that. There may be many psychological reasons for it, but it comes down to a lack of openness and a lack of recognition of what the fine arts have to offer.

The self/we-centered hymns of OCP keep one firmly grounded, they do not open us up to a listening silence that goes beyond the music itself.

Considering more on silence, let us contrast this power of music with Edward Munch’s, The Scream, discussed by Daniel Siedell via a Peter J. Leithart post on First Things. The Scream, we read, expresses Munch’s desperate silence scream through art.

“The painting is ‘the sound of our response to nature’s brute silence and indifference, undisclosed as gift through God’s Word’ (21).”

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The Scream – an 1895 lithograph

There is a silence that is a barricaded silence, a solitary silence, a silence in which you find you are truly alone. Then there is the silence that is peace, rest, respite, hushed, that opens our hearts to hear the word of God.

Pieper describes the former which is the “malignant absence of words which already in our present common existence is a parcel of damnation. Isn’t this the silence we, in this society, are so afraid of? With the constant distraction, I’m not sure I agree with those who say we are afraid of silence because are afraid to look inside. Many are, it is true, fearful of that introspection found in silence. But I think, for many who do not know God or the celebration of life made possible by the knowledge of a life beyond this life, the silence is a frightful fearful thing because it is empty. It embodies the scream, the solitary life without meaning.

Fine music opens the heart and mind. The silence is not empty and so need not be a cause for fear. One must be willing to listen. When one is ready to listen. The use of music as a path to interior silence must not be underestimated as a tool for evangelization.

Reflections on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 3

Continuing the conversation as I read Only the Lover Sings, by Josef Pieper.

Thoughts about music

What do we perceive when we listen to music with the ‘right ears’?”

I have been married five and a half years. My husband is a musician. He is the kind of musician who breathes music, who writes music more fluidly than he writes English, whose vision and life goal is to be an old man with a beard, quietly writing music in his study, preferably at the top of a tower. For at least three of these years I have nagged him with the question, why does music strike the listener so?

As a lover of the field of psychology, the words of “why” and “human” come together so frequently, it is for me as musical sounds are for my husband. In the invaluable Hitchcock movie, The Wrong Man, Manny says he likes to figure, like many musicians, he seems to be good at numbers. That’s the type of musician my husband is.

From The Wrong Man

 

So when I ask the questions, “why does ‘Let it go’ capture so many people?” “Why does ‘O God beyond all Praising’ give me chills?” “Why does —- sound so ugly?” he gave answers here and there, but it never quite satisfied. We were both looking at the music through a theoretical-scientific approach. I even thought it would be good to research the brain studies done while listening to music. That might open the door.

Along came Josef Pieper. It appears, it is not a scientific question at all, but a philosophical question. After all, if it can give you chills, if it can make you weep, if there is just that something about it, it must speak to that something spiritual, where no mathematical or scientific instrument can reach. For this we need, philosophy.

“…thus has the nature of music variously been understood in Western philosophical tradition…as wordless expression of man’s intrinsic dynamism of self-realization, a process understood as man’s journey toward ethical personhood, as manifestation of man’s will in all its aspects, as love.”

This is a revelation to me. Pieper puts into words so perfectly the sense that was just beyond my grasp.

Continuing, because music also involves the role of the artist performing the music, it cannot be divorced from that personhood. We do not only have the potential of music to do that which he describes above but we see music is capable of other things:

“Thus the musical articulation may include a shallow contentment with the facile availability of the cheapest “goods”, the rejection of any ordered structure, the despairing denial that man’s existential becoming as a goal at all or that such a goal could be reached.”

And the other instrument in this dynamic? Music also involves the role of the listener who receives it.

“We now realize why and to what extent music plays a role in man’s formation and perfection—as contribution or hindrance, and both, once again beyond any conscious efforts toward formation, teaching or education.”

I give you the conclusions he reaches, you’ll have to obtain a copy of the book to see the steps yourself. I will have to read this at least three more times to understand them myself. We learn from Pieper that music is related our quest, our movement whether towards perfection or destruction. His next step fascinates me all the more.

“…prompted by the disturbing observation equating the history of Western music with the ‘history of a soul’s degeneration’.”

He references a claim that we can see the development of Western music with the degeneration of the spiritual domain of the person. I’m fascinated by the influence of marketing in American culture for those who do not take their primary culture from their religion or ethnicity. What happens when Black Friday and Superbowl Sunday become the two biggest holidays of the year?

My mind is struck silent and requires meditation to ponder this question. For those whom mass marketing fills the cultural vacuum, what will the impact be with the only music they encounter is that which has been turned out through a marketing machine?

Certainly part of the answer will connect to the “shallow contentment with the facile availability of the cheapest ‘goods'” in this culture of instant gratification. Marketing deepens as music is never waited for. We don’t need people to play before us, we don’t need disc jockeys to hear our song requests. We download it and play it when we like. We don’t need speakers or sound systems. A person’s phone could have better speakers than anything else in their house. He or she can listen anywhere, any time. Instant gratification.

And because music is digital and personalized, it does not require any community to hear it, I can listen on ear buds. I am an island unto myself. When I am lifted up, I am lifted up alone, my feelings are witnessed only by me, they are not shared. And so they need never be defended.

The music of “Let it Go” was transcendent and uplifting. So often popular music is trite or banal or ugly. The message of the words resonates with the anxiety of the age. We are overwhelmed by our world and our responsibilities. Contemporary Christian music is sickly sweet and all to often high enough to make a contra-alto’s vocal chords bleed (or so it feels should I ever attempt to participate through singing). In the anxiety of our age we look for comfort, we want to know we are loved, we are perhaps too anxious to allow ourselves to be accused.

Have you ever heard “God of Mercy and Compassion“? An exquisite rendition can be found on Lent at Ephesus by the Benedictine Sisters. This is amazing stuff. But culturally, we want what is easily accessible. If we are content with that, we will accept what the marketers push at us, and so it deepens.

Click here to read my reflections on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2

Click on the Literature Tab at the top of the page to see my reflections on other works.

Reflections on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 2

The art of God

There are a great many things to see. Josef Pieper in Only the Lover Sings, section two titled “Learning to see again,” discusses the need for us to see and the great poverty that occurs when we are no longer able to see the world as it is really is, in its depths, in its glory, as the work that reflects the hand of the artist, God himself.

It must be a great and magnificent world we live in. Why should this modern age in America be so numb to the transcendent, the glorious? Instead of beauty, so much “modern art” reflects disgust and the trouble within the human spirit. It is the noise of the age that makes it difficult, Pieper astutely points out.

“Yet one reason must not be overlooked either: the average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see! There does exist something like “visual noise” which just like the acoustical counterpart, makes clear perception impossible.”

He wrote these words in 1950. Had he even written these words in 1980 there would still be a vast difference between then and now. How much more noise is present with our internet-age, our smartphone-age? With the constant barrage of advertisements and visual noise it is no wonder we are so uncomfortable with silence.

“At stake here is this: How can man be saved from becoming a totally passive consumer of mass-produced goods and a subservient follower beholden to every slogan the managers may proclaim?”

There is a large segment of the population very much taken up in this passive consumption, totally unaware that so much of the personal business is guided by the business of advertising. All of our precious social media websites are ultimately about making money for the creator or company that runs them.

I will acknowledge though, a thread of hope that runs throughout: the power of the news. Though many are still taking their news from those companies who, at the end of the day, hope to make a profit, there is a great wealth of information now being shared to get a clearer, more informed picture to people. Likewise the DIY movement, the homesteading movement, the homeschooling movement. There is a lot at work now in society very much focused on creation. Perhaps those involved have grown weary of the noise, of the profiteering, and recognize in the silence and stillness of earth and home, joy can be found.

Another thought stirs me as I read this chapter. Mother Theresa said, “The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”

Pieper calls our inability see as the most abject poverty. What do we fail to see most, with the visual noise, the clutter, the consumerism? We fail to see the human person. Is there any greater art? Is there any greater creation than the intricate, wild, free-willed, rational human person?

Christ could look at the woman at the well and see her. He possessed, as Pieper describes it, “a deeper and more receptive vision, a more intense awareness, a sharper and more discerning understanding, a more patient openness for all things quiet and inconspicuous, an eye for things previously overlooked.”

We can possess this too. Pieper, indeed, does not describe this possession as being that of Christ’s, but necessary for any man. In my field, where we work using a set of scientific tools artistically applied, those who are big in the business can look at a person and instantly take in a great deal of information about that person. We are trained to look and to look deeply, take it in and then process in order to understand this person.

“In short: the artist will be able to perceive with new eyes the abundant wealth of all visible reality, and, thus challenged, additionally acquires the inner capacity to absorb into his mind such an exceedingly rich harvest. The capacity to see increases.”

I know Pieper is talking about art. My mind continues to go back to the work. It is the same act. Each client I encounter is a gift to me. It is a gift to know him or her, to see into their world, to feel their pain, and to celebrate their joys. I have to move silently, listening, watching, waiting, not putting forth my own thoughts, but rather seeing the world as they see it. Only then can I really help them.

Perhaps this is why the field suffers so at times, or so with particular practitioners. If they cannot see the person as art, cannot see the One who created this client, then there is little hope, there are only techniques. It would be the person with eyes to see, who could guide that suffering soul to the heights for which God has made them, at least to see those heights exist and that they are worthy to approach them. Then God’s grace will guide them the rest of the way. We are so broken. We have lost the vision of ourselves.

Learning to see.

What is man that thou art mindful of him,
and the son of man that thou dost care for him?

Yet thou hast made him little less than God,” (Ps 8, 4-5)

One of the greatest things we can do is to see this in each other.

To live out this call, this necessary skill, one does not need to be a writer, a sculptor, a painter. What is art? What is leisure? It is something we are all capable of possessing. I look into the faces of my children. Their faces light up. As I receive what my eyes set upon, they come alive and provide a great show. I can contemplate their beauty.

The noise, the distraction, prevents all this.

Visual noise. I have long thought about this. Having a cellphone simply present on a table is correlated with more superficial conversation than when no cellphone is visible. Using a laptop in a classroom setting changes the dynamic dance of knowledge from teacher to student. We become machines, consuming, spitting out data.

Here is a moment. We stood at the fence when Pope Benedict XVI would pass by. I decided I would not take a picture. I would look. I would take it in. He looked right in my direction. I still see his gaze, as if upon me and me alone. I have seen many photographs of the man. But that moment is in my heart.

Reflections while reading Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 1

 

 

 

As a child, there was just something different about me, different from the rest of my family and the people I met at church or at school. I hardly knew what that difference was. I enjoyed play outside, like any child. I had a deep imagination and richly patterned tapestries put together during that play. In 5th grade, a friend received attention in class for writing a poem. Desiring the same attention, I began to write poetry. I wrote and wrote and wrote and the thing became something I desired for its own sake. In 6th grade, I began to write stories. I fancied myself a great novelist, destined to be famous. This was an important development from my days of singing loudly in the front yard while I swung on my play set, imagining a radio producer would drive by and discover me.

I wrote and wrote and wrote. Deep imaginative worlds. Richly patterned tapestries. My play dissolved, as is common, in junior high; the writing continued. I did not see at the time how much of myself I put into the main characters of these stories. The stories had to reach 100 pages, because that was the predetermined length I set for myself that would make it a real novel.

In 7th or 8th grade, while staying over at my best friend’s house I stayed up late speaking with her brother, a year or two older than she, who was two or three years old than me. There was something about that conversation, which I can no longer remember, that changed forever how I wrote. I learned about detail and description in that conversation. Now my tapestries were no longer patterned only in my head but on the computer screen as well.

With my conversion came an inclination to scruples and rather than my visions of grandeur, I pictured writing as a gift bestowed by God, an emotional outlet, a fantastical escape, a gift which he might choose to take away at any time. Each story I finished, I feared it would be my last.

One day it was my last, a story I began while serving as a missionary, which, if you have been reading this blog are familiar with. Called A Girl and Her King, it follows my adventures in prayer, not much else. It is neither descriptive nor imaginative, I think, but felt inspired as I wrote. I’ve not written any fiction since, though I have since learned that God is not the type of giver I once imagined him.

Beyond that story, which is a treasure to me, there are only three stories I would care to look back on. The first is called Mary’s Fairytale, about a girl who has no family and whose young brother whom she cared for died suddenly. She is alone and searching for meaning in the world. She finds Christ.

The second is Velveteen. The main character, also a girl, also lonely, at odds with her sister, who seeks meaning and purpose, a place in life where she is wanted and useful. She longs to see again a girl the family fostered for a short time who ran away. The girl represents everything the main character wants, the freedom to think and dream in a world where reality has made dreams unbearable.

The last is The Story of Marin. This story was an enigma to me for a long time. I find genuine ugliness in it, hopelessness, and sin. I shared the storyline with a fellow missionary, admitting that I had no idea how to finish the story, it seemed hopeless. I discovered the potential of relationships while serving that year, and in that sisterhood, I discovered a fulfilling relationship much needed by the main character. That relationship became a place of hope to lead her out of the darkness of her life.

In that year of missionary work, I also encountered people, in Oregon, who opened my eyes to the possibility that there were others like me: artists, poets. What is it exactly? That ability to see the world differently that makes some tasks others like so un-fulfilling and other tasks which bore to some to tears utterly engaging?

 

Josef Pieper seems to have some answers. In our book club we have begun reading Only the Lover Sings. In the first chapter, or essay rather, better yet, reflection, he explores the meaning of leisure and the claim by Aristotle “We work so we can have leisure.”

 

“For nothing less it at stake here than the ultimate fulfillment of human existence.”

 

“There do exist activities that are meaningful without being either work or mere respite (from work, for more work).” These are the liberal arts which are meaningful in themselves. Leisure is not mere play. It is the thing that sets us apart from animals. He does not say this here, but it is the thing that comes after the first few levels of the hierarchy of needs are fulfilled. It is the purpose for which we continue to invent machines to ease life’s burdens. It is art, as he calls it first, the liberal arts and they are the work that is meaningful in itself, not work done out of usefulness, to serve some other good.

 

He gives us two preconditions for work to be meaningful in itself.

  1. Receptive openness and attentive silence (unlike the concentrated exertion of work).
  2. Man’s willing acceptance of the ultimate truth “awareness of being in harmony with these fundamental realities and surrounded by them.” This acceptance enables man to celebrate a feast, to engage in leisure.

 

“Wherever the arts are nourished through the festive contemplation of universal realities and their sustaining reasons, there in truth something like a liberation occurs: the stepping-out into the open under an endless sky, not only for the creative artist himself but for the beholder as well, even the most humble.”

 

This was my experience writing. This was art for me. Though my imagination has cooled and the fantasies calmed, I still look at the world, look out my window and see the spiritual interwoven with the physical. I can sit and gaze, it does me no harm to do so, causes me no boredom. I decorate to create an interior space in which I can do this, gaze at the wall and take in the beauty of a particular color, or the shape of an arrangement.

And I write again. I photograph again. I look for the image, wait for the word to come, seek to find that inner voice which spills so willingly out my fingers while I type. It comes too quickly for my typing skill and so my words are usually riddled with errors. Oddly enough, the same happens when I write by hand.

I do not know if I should share more of my writing. I look back on it as child’s play, as I do the games with imaginary horses I played during recess on the playground. I’m not plagued with those visions of grandeur. Rather, it is a blank slate; I do not know what to think about it, except that it is special to me. Your responses are helpful. Your comments welcome. It is a pleasure for me to spill some digital ink before you, and I hope a welcome gift for you.

I might have actually liked Frozen…

Have you seen this song “Life’s Too Short” which was created but then cut from the movie Frozen? There were many paths considered for the plot of the movie Frozen. This was cut as the story was developed. Please watch it and read on.

I think I would have really liked Frozen if they had gone in this direction. If you follow this blog, you know I’m not a fan of the movie. Here are the reasons why “Life’s Too Short,” a song full of deep and complex ideas and interpersonal dynamism, made such an impression on me.

Reason 1: I think this song demonstrates what strained sibling relationships are like.

Good movies/stories show insight into relationships no matter how fantastic the setting. Poor story telling either doesn’t go deep enough or makes caricatures of those relationships and the people in them. Is it realistic that Anna and Elsa should not know each other at all, spend six, eight or ten years separated by a door, unwilling to play, even after their parents who separated them died? Is it realistic that Elsa should be crowned queen after being locked up in this way?

It is more realistic that they would know each other, have some relationship, albeit is a very strained one. There is the desire for a relationship but an inability to quite connect because they don’t fully know or accept a part of who Elsa is. So as it is, is it really a happy ending the way the movie goes? They still don’t know each other but they’ve finally become aware and acted on their love for each other. Then what? I think the next step would more likely be what this song portrays. Just as I dislike movies where we spend one and half to two hours waiting for people to date, I disliked this movie. The real drama happens when relationships start.

Reason 2: If a person decides to take the “screw you, this is my who I really am” approach to things, there are some very real and painful consequences for everyone involved.

Elsa left her responsibilities as queen on her coronation day. In the song she will be only happy if Anna joins her in her new life. She won’t back to a life of hiding. It’s Anna’s mistake to think the only way Elsa can return is through hiding (wearing the gloves) but it’s the mistake of Elsa to think the only other alternative is to leave entirely. This dichotomy hurts people. The interaction reveals assumptions and expectations. Elsa’s choices and Anna’s ultimatum (which is really just a lack of understanding) damages relationships.

Number 3: Good stories commit to who their characters are, for good and ill and allow consequences to their faults/virtues to develop.

If we consider the musical Into the Woods (I have not seen the film, I am referencing the musical), the Baker’s Wife is basically a good person, but she has utilitarian beliefs (willing to lie to get the cow because have a child is a greater good than a boy’s friendship with a cow). That utilitarian belief leads to her dismissal of her unfaithfulness towards her husband with the prince as just a moment in the woods. There are consequences for her perspective.

Frozen does not commit to its characters. Elsa let’s go of all she has known, she’s a liberated person and there are no personal consequences that move the viewer. Personally, I believe Disney did not want to make her a real villain, even for a little while (reconciliation could still be the ending, sprinkling in conversion), because of the marketing opportunities to having two new princesses.

With this song, Elsa becomes the villain because she prioritizes her freedom over everything else, without regard to what or who she left behind. It’s implicit in the story as it is, but you have to search for it. By and large, she is treated as good and and as a victim without negative emotional weight to her choices.

Good stories have complicated people, good and bad, which is like life. This plot direction would have made the favorite song, “Let it Go,” a deeply complex song, sung from Elsa’s perspective but ultimately shown to have disastrous consequences when seen from a broader perspective. “Life’s Too Short” causes us to feel more for Anna when juxtaposed against Elsa, although it still succeeds in making us feel the hurt of both sisters. It makes that goal of the movie more successful by casting a little more judgment on their choices.

Number 5: Lastly, from where do we take our identity?

Who am I? Does my value come from my athleticism? What happens if I get injured, lose a leg, or my ability to run because of a heart condition? Who am I then? Sometimes when a person has been told to hide who they are for so long, they ruminate on that feature and it becomes a defining characteristic. I’m an artist! I’m a lesbian! I’m a Democrat! But these are features of our personality and parts of our life, very important features and important parts, but parts nonetheless. Our wholeness and value come from something permanent and lasting, from being made in the image of God as human beings. Seen in this framework, we can negotiate the rest, make it work, see where it fits.

Have you ever seen the stop animation film, Santa Claus is Coming to Town? You can still have the misunderstood villain by having a real villain who experiences a conversion. Sure, it’s simplified here, but the concept is important. It’s a concept mostly lost in modern storytelling.

I’m not saying Elsa should put on the gloves. But a resolution of this crisis might show that she repents of her choices to abandon everything, return and work through both her feelings of rejection (while others learn to accept who she is) and also learn to use and adapt her powers to her frame of life. It has less an “us against them” feeling and more “us against ourselves” which is something the greatest dramas in history portray.

Reflections on Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Ch 4

Below are my final reflections from Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Ch 4. As before, the quotes are indented, my thoughts are in italics.

Again and again, Pope Benedict comes to these questions: who are the magi and why did they travel?

 [They] were wise. They represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and hence “philosophy” in the original sense of the word. Wisdom, then, serves to purify the message of “science”: the rationality of that message does not remain at the level of intellectual knowledge, but seeks understanding in its fullness, and so raises reason to its loftiest possibilities.

The wise men from the east are a new beginning. They represent the journeying of humanity toward Christ…they represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religious and human reason toward him.

He writes that the star represented hope. Today I spoke with a woman whose heart was breaking because of crises in her family and a crisis with a student at the school where she works. “Do you have anything,” I asked, “that can renew or refresh you’re heart?” After some thinking she said: time with her grandchild. It took her a while before she thought of that. How hopeless the world can look when we carry it all on our shoulders, how small the world can look, how frustrating. We know in our hearts there is something more.

The life force pulls us back from the thing that will kill us. But where is the hope? Where is the star in my life? I’m looking for happiness but the sky is full of clouds. There are areas in my life where I feel competent, whole, and I can forget my troubles. But then the troubles come as a storm to stop me. Obstacle after obstacle, I believe I will fail.

How many of us have experienced those thoughts in our life? Where was the star? Where was my hope? The wise men went searching. Why did they go? They were wise. We have to search. We have to find that hidden ingredient and fight, tooth and nail, to restore hope in our lives.

At the end we can only find Christ and each scrap of happiness ultimately points us to him. We can’t make the rules ourselves. We can’t forget the rules because the rules are there to guide us to our proper star. I can’t look at the stars and guide myself. I need the wisdom of ages past to help me understand what it means, to make my way through the wilderness.

What from the lofty perspective of faith is a star of hope, from perspective of daily life is merely a disturbance, a cause for concern and fear. It is true: God disturbs our comfortable day-to-day existence. Jesus’ kingship goes hand in hand with his Passion.

And if we aren’t searching? If we aren’t searching, perhaps we are all the more lost. Am I so satisfied with all I have achieved? The danger of wealth is the beginning of believing that in wealth lies my security. To put our trust in anything but God is to make an idol of it. But this makes me happy, we might argue. I have never felt such joy before and now I feel so much more complete. The thing will fail, because it is a false god and the true God is “that that which nothing greater can be thought.” Stock markets will fail, recessions occur, housing opportunities drop, physical ability decrease or slowly disappear, mental ability weaken, nature cause calamity, spouses disappoint. The only thing in our life in which we can truly trust is the one that can never fail. If other things make us happy, wonderful, but they cannot be the end.

The search is a terrible one, painful, stripping bit by bit of our security away from things we have worshiped unknowingly, exterior idols or painted idols of a god made in our image, not the image of the true Triune God revealed to us. Are we willing to be uncomfortable? Are we willing to give up the creature comforts we’ve trusted so much to see how little we are?

There are those for whom this desert comes without choice: illness, death, depression. A star can pull us out, keep us going.

Let us look for the star. Allow ourselves to be uncomfortable and trust the Lord that he can show us the way, the way through the desert. The wisdom of the Church and her moral teaching provides the understanding of how to navigate the stars. It is a long journey to come from the east, full of danger. But when you arrive to that crib, lay down your gifts, and lay down your head to worship him, you have found your star, unrecognizable as it may be in the beginning. But it will grow. First we find him in helplessness, bound by swaddling clothes. As we see the promise in miracles, the path transforms to one that tries us more than we ever imagined, the cross. But then comes glory. Then comes the kingdom. Then comes our God, risen from the dead.