The Apocalypse According to Doctor Who

Dr Who

The Doctor Who Christmas Special was recently made available via online streaming to those of us who do not have access to the BBC on our televisions. I’ve been thinking about it for a month now and cannot stop.  The episode, entitled “The Time of the Doctor” marks the transition from Matt Smith’s Doctor to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.

The goodbye scene is… well, let’s just say that because I already knew it was coming I was able to adequately prepare my emotions:

I may have cried a little

 

Oh my, when the bowtie hits the floor…

Doctor Who has a densely packed mythology that underlies the events leading up to the regeneration (the Doctor occasionally regenerates and is subsequently played by a new actor. This is the secret to keeping a show going for decade after decade after decade…). It would be well nigh impossible to unpack all of the background, but there are abundant theological themes throughout for us to muse upon. I have always thought that we ought to “read” Doctor Who in the same way we might read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This is to say, not as a straightforward retelling of another story with silly characters and magic but rather as a fairy tale that is implicitly Catholic-shaped simply because it assumes the presence of a greater reality of beauty and goodness. Now, I have no idea if the writers of Doctor Who are even the tiniest bit religious, but they certainly have created a world in which virtues and destiny and good and evil have meaning. Their stories are highly mythopoetic and dense with symbol.

Edith Stein writes in Science of the Cross,

“every genuine work of art is a symbol…that is, it comes from that infinite fullness of meaning into which every bit of human knowledge is projected to grasp something positive and speak of it. It does so in such a manner, in fact, that it mysteriously suggests the whole fullness of meaning , which for all human knowledge is inexhaustible. Understood this way, all genuine art is revelation and all artistic creation is sacred service.”

A world in which everything means something is a world that is highly charged with the Divine presence. Nothing is merely a true to life “adult” recounting of grim facts. No gritty, dour, post-modern drama, here. This is why science fiction in general and Doctor Who in specific are so wonderful; it hasn’t given up telling stories. The Doctor may or may not be a Christ figure (I think probably not), but his actions always have resounding significance. He is very old and very wise, a true hero, journeying through a noble world in which nature is shot through with grace. Our lives are lived with precisely the same significance. Each day is a heroic journey, and at our best we make of ourselves a gift for those we love. All of our actions have eternal significance.

The Christmas special finds the Doctor, appropriately enough, in a town called Christmas where snow is always on the ground and the truth is always told. All of the ancient enemies of the Doctor and his species the Time Lords have gathered here in response to a mysterious question beamed out to all time and space. It is a question: Tell us your name, doctor…who? The enquirers turn out to be the long lost Time Lords, speaking through a crack to another universe. To answer and speak his name, forbidden to all, unlocks the door to allow the Time Lords back to their rightful place in this universe, but for the new world to come on the one we have now must die. To answer doctor who? brings on apocalypse as The Silence, Daleks, Cyber Men, and Weeping Angels are all eager for a final battle to push back the new world and destroy the Time Lords forever. Under these circumstances, the Doctor is and must remain unknowable. The question remains unanswered.

These guys are super scary and violent. Really.

The Doctor has seen all of this before, this planet with the town called Christmas. He has journeyed here many years in the future and stood at the foot of his grave. This is where he dies for the last time. No more regenerations. It is predestined.

In such conditions, his only victory is to keep the villagers of Christmas safe. And this he does for hundreds of years, steadfastly refusing to say his name out loud but also steadfastly refusing to abandon these innocent people to the monsters at the edge of town, drawn in by the mysterious question like moths to a flame. The Doctor forestalls the apocalypse, but experiences a long, slow apocalypse of another sort. This one is personal, and he knows that it only ends with his own death. Is this a picture of a sacrificial Christ figure? A tragic hero? A simple, confused man unsure how to make a big decision? Perhaps all of these, but I would say that he is most clearly a saint. A sometimes flawed yet entirely virtuous martyr for the good of those he loves.

In the end, a miracle is granted. It is occasioned by life energy (or whatever the fancy, sci fi name of the sparkly blue stuff is) being sent through the crack from the other Time Lords. This is most certainly a graced moment, a pure gift from those who love him. Without it his regeneration will not take place and the last Time Lord will have fulfilled his predestined death, the way of all creatures. With renewed energy, though, instead of the final end there is a regeneration. The viewer never has it spelled out, but obviously the future that the Doctor had seen is not so set in stone. His grave will not be here after all.

However, this regeneration is not cheap grace. There is most certainly still a death. The transition from one face to another is not a mere change in appearance, a new face on the same essential personality. The old Doctor is gone. He dies and undergoes the transfiguration of the grave and new life.

“Goodbye, Raggedy Man,” bids a vision of his faithful friend. Indeed, goodbye. We are all breath on a mirror and we fade away so quickly. We have but a short time to become saints. In this life is much that is difficult and suffering and goodbyes. The heroic journey must always end in a death, and yet, grace is lingering, drifting along through a crack in the universe waiting for us to inhale.

 

On Prayer and Pilgrimage

David and Diana are VERY excited to go to Portugal!

David and Diana are VERY excited to go to Portugal!

In less than 10 days, I will be–God willing–boarding a TAP flight (woo hoo!) to Lisboa (that’s Lisbon in Portuguese!) on my birthday!

Talk about an awesomesauce birthday prezzie, huh?

I know. I’m overjoyed. Except, ok . . . I’m only overjoyed when I allow myself to stop thinking about the five bazillion things I have to do in anticipation of this trip, and for my job, and the blogs, and the pilgrimages, and all the projects I have going, and . . . oh, my head has been spinning for the past few weeks.

Ask my mom. I haven’t talked to her in about that long, and normally I talk to her pretty frequently. (Hi mom! I’ll call you later today!)

One thing I keep thinking about, though, as I prepare for this amazing adventure, is how I am going to keep from going absolutely crazy on my poor husband while we’re in the middle of it.

I know. You all think I’m nice. And I try to be. I do. But people who know me know that, sometimes, the Dragon Lady rears her ugly head (as my friend, Karissa, likes to call her). The name is apt. Dragon Lady is stressed and freaky and angry and yelly and loud and oh-my-gosh-I-need-to-get-away-from-her CA-RAY-ZEE. Even I am afraid of the Dragon Lady. It’s that bad.

emilia-clarke-khaleesi-fire.gif.pagespeed.ce.L2t2Zg74BuAnd do you want to know when the Dragon Lady comes out? The Dragon Lady comes out when my center is not focused. And what is it that knocks my center out of focus?

You got it: a lack of prayer.

I don’t believe in sun signs–although mom did have the book when we were younger, and we used to love to pour over it!–but I am a Libra. I always liked being a Libra. Libra = balance. Right? The scales are our symbol, after all! Once , I was at a party in NYC, and some person–totally forget who it was–asked me what my sun sign was. And when I told her, she (or was it a he?) said: “Oh, honey!” (can you hear the accent?) “You are all about balance. When your center is at peace, the world could be falling apart around you, but you will remain calm. And when your center is not at peace, the world can be at peace, but you will be a mess.” “So . . .” I asked, “what’s my center?” “Honey,” he/she said, “that’s for you to find out!”

As much as I would like my center to be dark chocolate with a hint of peanut butter . . . mmmmm, CHOCOLATE! . . . I knew what it was as soon as I’d asked. My center is God. And God is with me the more I pray. And when I pray, the world can be falling apart around me, and I will be at peace. And when I don’t pray, well . . . DRAGON LADY.

So, now that you know just a few more of my faults, what does this all mean for you? Let’s take it back to the top: This is a blog post on prayer and pilgrimage. And I am here to tell you that no matter where you go, whether it be the Holy Land or Portugal or wherever you go on this pilgrimage we call life, you have to incorporate prayer into your day.

“The fruit of Silence is prayer.

The fruit of Prayer is faith.

The fruit of Faith is love.

The fruit of Love is service.

The fruit of Service is peace.”

–Mother Teresa

“SILENCE?!” you might be thinking. “Where can I get SILENCE?!” And yeah, I totally get you. Where can we get some silence in this crazy world? There are TVs in elevators, at the gas pump, and the checkout stand. TVs in waiting rooms, even some churches who seem to have given up on trying. The radio blares, the chat shows never shut up, and we are never left in peace. The devil hates silence. He says so in Screwtape Letters.

“Music and silence — how I detest them both! . . . no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise — Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile … We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in that direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.”

–From Screwtape, the senior demon of The Screwtape Letters:

But whatever. I’m not one to just throw my hands up and let the devil win.

Statue of Lucifer being Cast into Hell in Madrid’s Parque del Retiro

I’m going to try, even if I have to try again and again, every five minutes after I forget and lapse into the craziness of the day. I’m going to try to bring some silence and prayer into my day on this trip, and into my workday as these days count down. So I thought I’d share how I am going to do that.

MORNING PRAYER

The best way to start your day is with Morning Prayer. Of course, morning prayer is often as skipped as is breakfast, but it is just as important! If you don’t eat breakfast, your metabolism gets off to a slow start. If you don’t start your day off with prayer, your day gets off to a too fast start. How do you make time for prayer? Get up 5 minutes earlier. (Cone on! It’s five minutes!) Ok, depending on how much time you want to give to God (because really, that is what it comes down to, right?), here are some prayers I like to pray in the morning.

The Morning Offering

I love a morning offering. It makes me feel . . . useful. Like everything I do that day, God will take and make something awesome out of it, like wine out of water. It also makes me hopeful, like, maybe, today, I will actually be a good girl and not get frustrated with everyone who steps in my way.  I’ve never found a morning offering I like 100%, and while I could just go and write my own, instead I pray two. Don’t ever call me an underachiever.

O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you all my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day, for the intentions of your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, in thanksgiving for your favors and in reparation for my sins, for the intentions of all our friends and family, and for the intention of our Holy Father.

I adore you, my God, and I love you with all my heart. I thank you for having created me, made me a Christian, and kept me this night. I offer you my actions of this day: grant that they may all be according to your holy will and for your greater glory. Keep me from sin and all evil. May your grace be always with me and all my dear ones. –Amen”

Then, there’s the prayer that Mother Teresa always used to pray, and which I like very much. Every time I pray it, I get a little teary-eyed. I mean, think about it: God gave me everything I value. That’s pretty awesome.

Receive, O Lord, all my liberty. Take my memory, my understanding, and my whole will. Whatever I have, whatever I possess, You have given me. I yield it to be directed by Your will. Give me only your love and Your grace and I am rich enough, nor do I ask for more.”

As we near the month of November, our minds should turn to the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Does yours not? Then READ THIS BOOK. It changed the way I think and pray. This prayer is something I took from that book, and whenever someone new dies, I add them to my list.

O my God, deign to accept my every thought, word, and action as a loving petition to Thy mercy on behalf of the suffering souls in Purgatory, particularly: [state names here]

I unite to Thy sacred Passion the trials and contradictions of this day, which I purpose to bear with patience, in expiation for the sins and infidelities which retain Thy children in the purifying flames of Purgatory. Amen”

Again, that’s a great prayer to make you feel hopeful and useful. Like my sufferings here on earth might be helping the Holy Souls in Purgatory! I love the thought that, when I die, a whole bunch of them will be waiting for me, each saying, “You helped me when you did this!” Can you imagine?

This next prayer is one that forces me to stay humble, because it is one of those prayers that includes everything that I think I should be, but the traits which I am fairly certain I do not have. Every time I pray this, I think, “God, are you hearing me?” But then I think, well, I must be a little better than I was yesterday! Maybe by the time I die I’ll get it. Hopefully.

Teach me, my Lord, to be sweet and gentle in all the events of my life, in disappointments, in the thoughtlessness of others, in the insincerity of those I trusted, in the unfaithfulness of those on whom I relied. Let me forget myself so that I may enjoy the happiness of others. Let me always hide my little pains and heartaches so that I may be the only one to suffer from them. Teach me to profit by the suffering that comes across my path. Let me so use it that it may mellow me, not harden or embitter me; that it may make me patient, not irritable; that it may make me broad in my forgiveness, not narrow or proud or overbearing. May no one be less good for having come within my influence; no one less pure, less true, less kind, less noble, for having been a fellow traveler with me on our journey towards eternal life. As I meet with one cross after another, let me whisper a word of love to You. May my life be lived in the supernatural, full of power for good, and strong in its purpose of sanctity. Amen.”

This last prayer, I believe I took from the Consecration to Jesus through Mary. I remember the first time I read it, I thought, “Wow! Why don’t I just ask Jesus to have everyone kick me when they pass by?!” LOL. I thought it was a bit harsh. But the more I pray it, the more I see how much I need to pray it.

Humility is not something we often work at in our attempts to become better people. Go to any self-help section of a bookstore, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts that you won’t find much on humility. And in this me me me world, it seems like all anyone ever cares about is ME FIRST. It almost forces you to become selfish, just to survive.

But I don’t want to be like that. Jesus said that there is value in humility, and while sometimes I don’t understand it or while it seems so extremely difficult to grasp, I know it must be important. If God could humble himself to become a baby, born in a dirty manger, to be poor, to deal with ridiculously dumb human beings who were so far below his level it isn’t even funny . . . then I can try to be humble, too. Because after all, what am I compared to Him? Nothing.

Crucifixion from Segovia’s Cathedral

Litany of Humility

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed,
—Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved…
From the desire of being extolled …
From the desire of being honored …
From the desire of being praised …
From the desire of being preferred to others…
From the desire of being consulted …
From the desire of being approved …
From the fear of being humiliated …
From the fear of being despised…
From the fear of suffering rebukes …
From the fear of being calumniated …
From the fear of being forgotten …
From the fear of being ridiculed …
From the fear of being wronged …
From the fear of being suspected …
That others may be loved more than I,
—Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I …
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease …
That others may be chosen and I set aside …
That others may be praised and I unnoticed …
That others may be preferred to me in everything…
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…

And that’s morning prayer! Seriously, that will take you 5-10 minutes, depending on how fast you pray. (Don’t aim for Speedy Gonzalez here…)

MORNING READING

If you have a little more time, you might try adding some spiritual reading into your day. My favorite is the In Conversation with God series published by Scepter, the publishing arm of Opus Dei. Don’t let that scare you–I don’t know why it would. The books are full of wonderful quotes from the saints, from the Bible (of course), and from our early Church Fathers. Each day has a reading, with special days getting two, and they correspond to the Liturgical Calendar and daily readings at Mass.

I love them because they are chock full of St. Josemaria Escriva quotes, and anyone who knows me knows I love him. He always gives me a good Spanish kick in the spiritual pantalones, if you know what I mean. And I always need it, too. The cool thing about these daily readings is that they are divided into three parts, so if I was smart with my time, I’d read one part in the morning, one part at lunchtime, and one part before going to bed. But I usually just knock ‘em all out at once. The best thing about these books is that they’re on Kindle now, so I can have them wherever I am, which I love. Granted, there are a good many people in my parish who think I’m texting before Mass when I’m actually reading my spiritual reading, but whatever. Let them think what they want.

DURING THE DAY

Ok, so you get your day started off right with some prayer and spiritual reading. But what do you do with the rest of your day? Well, this is where it depends on how you’re spending your day.

If you’re on pilgrimage, one would hope that you could try to make it to daily Mass. That is, after all, the point of pilgrimage. But if you’re on a weird pilgrimage like I’m going to make, daily Mass might be hit or miss. Same thing in normal life. If you can make it to daily Mass at lunchtime, your day will get a nice shot of God which will reinvigorate you and carry you through for the rest of the day. If you can do this, you are truly blessed.

If you can’t make it to Mass, another thing you might try is praying the hours! One of the Daughters of St. Paul whom I follow on Twitter was recommending this recently at a talk . . . And I thought it was an awesome idea!

So, most days, I sit at my desk and don’t get up unless I really, really have to. Time flies by and I lose track of it. But my computer has this awesome little thing that allows me to make a voice announce the time on the hour every hour. Since reading Sister’s tweet, I thought I would try to say a little prayer every hour–even a Hail Mary or an Our Father. As we’re out and about, we can do the same. Everyone has some type of alarm on them–be it on their watch or their phone. Use an app to remind you to pray the Angelus at noon, or to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet at 3 pm. (I use Alarmed.)

And, of course, it should go without saying that praying before every meal is another way to keep praying during the day. Give thanks for everything–that sip of water or soda. A piece of fruit. Tortilla chips. Whatever. Give thanks.

Praying the Liturgy of the Hours is something that shouldn’t be left out, either. To be honest, I always found using the books to be tremendously confusing, and never got the hang of it. It wasn’t until I discovered the Divine Office app that I really started enjoying the Liturgy of the Hours. These enterprising people create audio clips of every day’s prayers, so you can listen to them and pray along with them, which I think is great. I always found praying the Liturgy of the Hours alone to be weird. LOL. But that’s me. The Everyday Catholic’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours is a great book that will explain the prayers and help you figure out how to do them best for your lifestyle. Or use the app.

AT THE END OF THE DAY

the-infant-samuel-at-prayer.jpg!BlogThere are a few things I know that I should do at the end of every day, but which I rarely do simply because I am lazy and am still trying to be a better Christian. One of them is a the daily examination of conscience. St. Ignatius of Loyola talks about this in his Spiritual Exercises, and, of course, examining how good or bad I’ve been during the day is never a bad thing to do. I’m just usually too lazy or tired to do it. I need to make a better effort to try. Father John Bartunek provides some really awesome help in these two blog posts that explains how and why we should conduct daily examinations of conscience, so I recommend this to you.

At the end of my day, I like to pray the Rosary. Not when it’s too late, or I’ll fall asleep in the middle of it, like St. Therese used to do. It always brings me closer to God and His Blessed Mother, and it reminds me that, even though he was God’s Son, Jesus didn’t have it easy, either. He and His mother suffered a lot during their time on earth, and it gives me hope and makes me feel less lonely in my own suffering. They know what it’s like to be lonely or frustrated or angry or all of those human emotions we have. Turning to them at the end of the day and throwing roses at the Blessed Mother’s feet is never a bad idea. If you’re not big on the Rosary, I recommend you check out The Secret of the Rosary, especially as we enter the month of October, dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary because of her victory at the Battle of Lepanto on October 7th (the day before my birthday!).

So that’s how I will be attempting to spend my days in Portugal–praying for you all and for the success of The Faithful Traveler in Portugal. It’s going to be tough, even though I’m sure it will be amazing. Please pray for us out there, and know that we will be bringing you all with us as we pray to Our Blessed Mother on Fatima on October 13th, and as we encounter the amazing people of Portugal.

Adeus! (Goodbye in Portuguese!)

Oh! By the way, I will be blogging my entire trip over at my new blog at Patheos, so please be sure to follow me over there for nightly recaps on the day’s events. I’ll also be posting pics to Facebook and Instagram and will try to be funny on Twitter. I promise you and my husband to leave the Dragon Lady at home!

Monday Night Links

Pia de Solenni brings charity to a hot button issue, expressing her appreciation for Cardinal Kasper–with whom she disagrees about the issue of reception of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics–in her very thoughtful review of Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, the Ancients invade your iPad as the Loeb Classical Library goes digital, and James Matthew Wilson reviews Cave Art at the Weekly Standard, Timothy Steele’s new book of poetry that includes pieces first published in Dappled Things. Think you’d like to get your own books published? Read this first. And celebrate the return of a young man who perseveres in pursuing the writing life against all the best advice in this wonderful manifesto for Marc Barnes’s re-inaugurated Bad Catholic blog.

On motherhood, art, and dying to self.

Of all the advice people love to give to young mothers, some of the most prolific is on how to be patient with small children, certainly a necessary skill. Yet the state of mind required for happiness at home with small children isn’t really patience, as such. It’s a kind of flow that transcends patience: an attentiveness to and delight in minutiae that others don’t seem to notice. It’s something like the state of mind required for watching the film Into Great Silence—or for living in a monastery. It is a Theresian “little way” of detachment from goals of one’s own, as the time when those goals might have been achieved slips irretrievably away. It is the patience of the surfer of the waves of boredom, as described by David Foster Wallace:

“Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”[1]

Thank God that the bliss lies on the other side, as experience has shown me that it does. And thank God this sort of endurance test is also required of writers, or I would never have encountered it before embarking on motherhood. Women with little or no such previous experience must also fight their way through boredom’s waves, and I think from hearing some of their stories that an unprepared person tends to fare worse when first plunked down inside five rooms with a tiny being whose need-based behaviors can’t be disciplined, scheduled, or predicted, and who depends entirely on her body for nourishment. Even for the experienced, the brain goes begging. When not well supplied with its own nourishment, it can wander into some dark and dry deserts.

While I am gone from what most people consider high-pressure environments, still the habit of internalized pressure is not gone from me. (“Wherever you go, there you are,” right?) I’m impatient for success, in heaven and on earth, and I do not know whether success will come. Not knowing scares me, but more and more the experience of meeting the daily tasks and accepting the daily gifts is peeling away this fear, baring me ribbon by ribbon to the air like the potato I am. It is stripping off not the desire for excellence, but the desire for validation.

I will know this deceitful desire is gone when I can accept my limitations in the way described by Caryll Houselander, when I can

stop striving to reach a goal that means becoming something the world admires, but which is not really worthwhile, [and] instead . . . realize the things that really do contribute to our happiness. . . . the things that satisfy our deeper instincts: to be at home, to make things with our hands, to have time to see and wonder at the beauty of the earth, to love and to be loved. . . . To work for real human happiness implies unworldliness, the kind of unworldliness that is usually a characteristic of artists, who—in spite of glaring faults—prefer to be poor, so that they may be able to make things of real beauty as they conceive it, rather than to suit themselves to the tastes and standards of the world.[2]

As a mother and an artist, I am grateful for the space and peace to pursue these deeper instincts daily. One minute motherhood will seem like the limiting condition on art; the next it will appear as the only hope for preserving the bliss on the flip side of boredom that is art’s necessary prerequisite. I would never have had the opportunity to rediscover this characteristic bliss of childhood and preserve it into adulthood, if not for my creaturehood as a woman and my re-creation as a mother. At times this cycle is breaking me completely, but only in order to rebuild me. There is reason to be grateful for this.

 

From Fiction to Mysticism

It is strange how books, sometimes, seem to spring into your life as if they had been lying in ambush. I began to notice this some years ago, when I picked up A Canticle for Leibowitz for the first time and was deeply intrigued by its vision of a world in which a nuclear holocaust had spurred a world-wide revolt against science, sending the world into a new Dark Age. The book, on its own, was fascinating, but I got chills down my back when I began reading, at the same time, Alasdair MacIntyre’s renowned philosophical text After Virtue, which begins with a thought experiment based on the exact same scenario as Canticle. Weird.

eight daysMore recently, I’ve been working my way through a book that has been on my short list for about a decade, Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy. While I have to admit it’s a little above my head, I’ve been fascinated by its discussion of how the medieval philosophers expanded and refined our concept of God, especially of God as Being, far beyond what thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle had been able to accomplish. I have found myself engrossed in Gilson’s erudite discussion of the ideas—which in his hands turn into more than ideas—making you almost feel the presence of that Being behind the words on the page, and leaving you thirsting for more.

In that sense, the latest book I received in the mail has me thoroughly intrigued: Andrew McNabb’s Eight Days & Virtue, which was just published this week by Divine Providence Press, an imprint of Wiseblood Books (for full disclosure, DT’s managing editor, Joshua Hren, is also editor in chief of Wiseblood, and I sit on the press’s board of directors, a volunteer position through which I am not involved in any editorial decisions). You may remember Andrew McNabb from The Body of This, a fine collection of short stories he published in 2009, and which was widely discussed in both Catholic and secular media sources. Andrew served last year as one of our fiction prize judges, and one might consider him as one of the more promising Catholic young talents writing fiction today—if it weren’t for the fact, as his new book suggests, that he may be permanently turning from writing (though not from reading) fiction. Eight Days & Virtue, which I have not yet finished reading, and which I plan to review in full later on, is something entirely different: two books in one, the first a spiritual memoir, the second a book length prose poem/mystical prayer/treatise on virtue. What makes the book so unique, and such a good pairing with my reading of Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, is that Eight Days narrates nothing less than what the author—an ordinary dad and literary writer from Portland, Maine—describes as an experience that brought him into “direct ecstatic union with the individual members of the Blessed Trinity.” While in the case of an extraordinary claim like this one I can’t help but withhold judgment until I’ve had a chance to read the entire book and reflect upon it for a while—even in the case of someone with whom I’ve collaborated and greatly respect—I have to say, at the very least, that I am fascinated and intrigued. I’d love to have a chance to discuss the book with anyone else who decides to read it. My hunch is that, very soon, readers of the book will not be in short supply.

If you’re intrigued too, you can listen to Deal Hudson interviewing the author on Church & Culture. And if you read the book, come back and give us your two cents in the comment box.

Connotations of “culture.”

As my friend measures the flour into the starter, a little clump of dough in a clean green-labeled Kalamata olive jar, she gives me instructions on how to replicate what she’s doing. “Every time you go to bake, feed it and divide it. Put half in your batch and half in a jar, and put the jar back in the fridge.” This will let the bacterial culture responsible for raising my bread divide and thrive.

How long does it last, I ask her. “Your lifetime,” she says. “Of course it can get too funky to be repaired, and then you’ll have to start over. But if you take good care of it and are lucky—” She shrugs: who knows how long?

That morning we had attended Mass together at a parish perched on the edge of a wild American river: in a crumbling Midwestern town, between railroad tracks and factories, a miniature Italianate church all newly renovated in local steel and stone. Its German glass windows and Italian marble altars, lovingly tended, gleam like jewels. Here again: replication, growth, nourishment—culture. Dividing and thriving.

Our children, too, thrive without our fully knowing how. Some are babies, others have grown tall; the tall ones sit together in the grass and chatter. “We are robins,” they say; “we are building our nests.” Who are they becoming? Who knows who they will be?

While we watch them, we sit and talk. It takes patience and a certain habit of being to approach other minds in a different mood from your own and turn that encounter, in the moment, into an exchange that is fruitful for all parties. It isn’t exactly art, or if it is, it’s a type of performance art, once pursued by the sort of people who used to be known as “cultivated.” I don’t excel at it; many writers don’t; more often our successes in building culture are achieved alone, trying to reach others who are also alone, trying to build a bridge. But sometimes not. Sometimes there is a small victory: a synthesis.

“[The Kingdom of heaven] is like to leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened. . . . [It] is as if a man should cast seed into the earth, And should sleep, and rise, night and day, and the seed should spring, and grow up whilst he knoweth not. For the earth of itself bringeth forth fruit, first the blade, then the ear, afterwards the full corn in the ear.” (Luke 13:21; Mark 4:26-28)

Los Angeles Re-Certifies Itself

Art (both good and bad) often catches (intentionally or incidentally)—and so helps document (to varying degrees of accuracy)—details of the place and the time in which it is made.

" Gin Lane" by William Hogarth - Reprint from circa 1880 in uploader's possession. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Gin Lane, by William Hogarth (1751)

"Doll Festival" by Katsushika Hokusai (Japan, 1760-1849) - Image: http://collections.lacma.org/sites/default/files/remote_images/piction/ma-1328432-O3.jpgGallery: http://collections.lacma.org/node/212955. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Doll Festival, by Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1802)

This is as true of cinema as of the other arts: Movies, both good and bad, are always at least a little bit “about” the times and places in which they are written, designed, and edited. When the camera leaves the studio set and goes on location, movies are especially – if sometimes inadvertently – about when and where they are shot.

Cinema came into its own, as an art form and an industry, in the early 20th century—and during its first hundred years, its home was Los Angeles. As Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1947, after his brief Hollywood sojourn,

It is [the film technicians’] fault that the studios are […] 3,000 miles from the world’s theatrical centre in New York, 6,000 miles from the intellectual centres of London and Paris. They came here because in the early days they needed the sun. Now almost all photography is done by artificial light. The sun serves only to enervate and stultify. But by now the thing has become too heavy to move.[1]

***

Binx Bolling, the moviegoer of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, describes “a phenomenon of moviegoing” that he calls “certification”:

Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.[2]

Binx, a 1950s New Orleanian, detects the excitement of a fellow New Orleanian as they watch a movie shot on location in New Orleans. 2010s Los Angeles, unlike 1950s New Orleans, has featured in movies for a century now–sometimes as an unnamed Anywhere; sometimes standing in for some other Somewhere; and, with increasing frequency from the 1940s onward, as its own kind of Somewhere, a sometimes haphazard, sometimes deliberate mix of representation and misrepresentation.

Recently, Meredith McCann wrote in this space about the changing rural landscape of Northern California. Movies, as an inadvertent consequence of the film industry’s concentration in Los Angeles, have ended up documenting the changing urban landscape of Southern California.

Still from Los Angeles Plays Itself; retrieved from the Cinefamily website, here.

Still from Los Angeles Plays Itself; retrieved from the Cinefamily website, here.

This insight—that watching movies carefully can reveal information about Los Angeles—forms the basis of Thom Andersen’s video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, due for release on DVD and “all digital platforms” between September 30 and October 14. (I had the good fortune to catch a screening earlier this week.) “Documentary” is not quite the word for it, since it contains very little original footage: Most of its 170 minutes consist of selections from movies (old and new, good and bad) spliced to accompany narration written by CalArts instructor Andersen and delivered deadpan by fellow filmmaker Encke King. The effect is something like watching a highbrow, casually Leftist Mystery Science Theater 3000 marathon with extra-dry jokes. If that sounds good to you; if you think you can handle some fleeting violence, nudity, foul language, and movie-plot spoilers; if you enjoy this fairly representative clip (which does contain some movie spoilers); and if you have 170 minutes to spare (not necessarily all in one sitting), you might want to seek it out. It’s a very personal vision–not objective, not exhaustive, not magisterial, not always persuasive, but thoroughly researched and thoroughly interesting. (Also thorough is Sound on Sight‘s essay on Andersen’s video essay, available here for those who want to read more.)

Cities that have featured in literature for hundreds of years–Paris, London, New York–already have their own written analogues to the situation of Los Angeles on film. (And indeed, there are already plenty of literary Los Angeleses to read about.) Perhaps, in the future, as the amount of capital required to make a movie diminishes, and the industry disperses from its historic center in Los Angeles, other cities and regions will grow their own hyper-abundant crops of varied cinematic self-depictions.  If so, consider Los Angeles Plays Itself a preview of coming attractions.


[1] Evelyn Waugh, “Why Hollywood is a Term of Disparagement,” in A Little Order, ed. Donat Gallagher (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977), 36.

[2] Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1967), 63.

How God Changes Your Brain

How God Changes Your BrainTwo ways to stay healthy I learned from this book: drink caffeine and yawn a lot.

How can I not give it a thumbs up?

How God Changes Your Brain is a collaboration between neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg and therapist Mark Robert Waldman. I first became acquainted with Dr. Newberg’s work in 2002 when I read Why God Won’t Go Away (co-authored with Dr. Eugene D’Aquili and Vince Rause). It captured my imagination so much that, being in film school at the time, I contacted Dr. Newberg and enlisted his help in writing a screenplay based on his work. Needless to say, I was excited to pick up How God Changes Your Brain.

As expected, the book is eye-opening and challenging, though it is also a bit of a hodge-podge. Part research paper, part guide to neurological health, part how-to meditation manual, the actual discussion of how God changes your brain takes up only a fraction of the text. For purposes of this blog, I will focus on the research because it is, to me, both the most interesting and the most problematic part of the book. That being said, I think everyone could benefit from the health and meditation sections’ practical advice.

Newberg and Waldman studied the effects of religious practices on both the individual psyche and the social world by combining brain-scan techniques, survey responses, and studies in which participants were asked to draw their conceptions of God. To greatly oversimplify, the conclusion is that God is Good for your mental, physical, and spiritual health, as well as for your relationships. The tradition God comes from does not seem to matter (Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, etc.), although the way in which you perceive God’s “personality” (benevolent, vengeful, etc.) matters greatly.

The importance of this kind of work in a world that is becoming overtly hostile to religion, where God and Science are perceived as enemies, cannot be overstated. In the first chapter, the authors directly challenge the views of writers like Richard Dawkins who have argued that religious beliefs are both personally and societally dangerous. How refreshing to hear respected scientists insist, “The evidence is not there.”

[A]s we will highlight throughout this book, most research… finds religion either neutral or beneficial when it comes to physical and emotional health. The enemy is not religion; the enemy is anger, hostility, separatism, extreme idealism, and prejudicial fear–be it secular, religious, or political.

Amen and Hallelujah to that.

How God Changes Your Brain is written for a secular audience, and the lens through which the authors view their findings is also secular. However, the work suffers from being written with an oddly dichotomous perspective, the result (I think) of having two authors who hold fundamentally different beliefs. Dr. Newberg ascribes to no particular tradition but “harbors the hope and feeling that God may actually exist,” while Mr. Waldman “finds science more satisfying and mysterious than philosophy or theology.” (Italics are his.) Thus we have a book that simultaneously argues, “Meditation can be separated from its spiritual roots and still remain a valuable tool for cognitive enhancement,” and, “If you incorporate your ethical, spiritual, or religious beliefs into [meditation] practices, they can become even more meaningful and experientially rich.” This tension exists throughout: the need to validate that belief in God is healthy versus the need to validate that atheists can be healthy, too. If the authors had kept in mind that neurological health is not the goal of religious prayer, but rather a side-effect, they could have saved themselves a lot of rhetorical dancing.

The book also falls into a lot of the usual secular humanist potholes: promotion of relativism and divorcing spirituality from religion; a very narrow definition of tolerance; denunciation of seeking to convert others to one’s own point of view while doing exactly that. Worst, in my opinion, is that when the authors discuss the various “personalities” of God, they equate a “biblical God,” (especially in the Old Testament) with an “authoritarian God,” but never with a benevolent or mystical God. These guys need to read the Psalms and the Song of Songs, pronto.

If you can get past all that, however, How God Changes Your Brain is still the kind of mental food that will make you grow new dendrites. When was the last time you stopped to ponder how genetics and evolution have affected your faith (or lack thereof)? Did you know that speaking in tongues creates a dialogue, thus reinforcing the separateness of self and God, while meditation tends to blur the distinction entirely? With such tantalizing headings as “The Chemical Nature of God,” “Is God Primarily a Feeling or an Idea?,” and “Is There a God Neuron In Your Brain?,” the book is rich with insight into the effects the search for truth and meaning have on our existence. If I were a theologian, I would, no doubt, be embarking upon a Theology of the Brain right now… but I am not a theologian. Sigh. I shall have to be content to ponder, grapple, and pray. As Dr. Newberg says in the epilogue, “If you let your curiosity and compassion play with all the possibilities, then you’ll enrich your life, and hopefully improve the world.”

The Little Oratory

Guest post by Tacy Williams Beck

The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home
by Leila Marie Lawler and David Clayton
Sophia Institute Press, 2014
224 pp.; $17.20
ISBN: 1622821769

American culture today has not only become increasingly secular, but it can often seem angry, selfish, lazy, and even violent on many levels. In this context, Leila Marie Lawler and David Clayton’s new book, The Little Oratory, is a breath of fresh air. Published as a large, handsome paperback with a crisp gold and blue cover and whimsical drawings throughout, this deceptively simple book about creating small prayer altars in the home is really a wonderful guide for how to embrace the beauty of our faith within the bounds of contemporary culture, and to do so in the context of our daily family life. One home at a time, a book like this could perhaps transform society. If nothing else, it can certainly transform your home life.

OratoryConsidering the harried, narcissistic culture in which we live, what a contrast it is to consult this unassuming paperback, and to be filled with a momentary wonder and peace at what our homes could be—if only we could put forth a little effort toward that end! Even just picking up the book for a few minutes, one is struck by its aesthetic qualities. It calls us from the mundane to the holy and the noble. Even before reading it, the illustrations and the cover call us to that which is higher, to transformation.

But how can we be transformed? The Little Oratory highlights three ways we can seek to do that. First, we must be prayer-centered. Second, we must be counter-cultural. And third, we must renounce our pride. In doing so, we may yet see the redemption of our culture.

Making our homes prayer-centered is the answer to the frenzied pace of modern life. In a rushed and harried culture, we must slow down. Sitting to pray as a family, or stopping to do the Liturgy of the Hours might seem extraordinary in our times—or more specifically, in your own home. Yet, while starting the day with social media may be the norm, the daily readings and, perhaps a small to do list, are preferable and life-transforming. The authors include tips for incorporating the Hours when it may seem like “a lot of work.” They write, “if your experience is like ours, your life will gradually start to conform to the pattern of your prayer and you will find it easier to make time.” Lawler and Clayton urge us to simply keep trying until it is a normal part of a busy routine. The illustrations, such as a beautiful mother cradling her child, inspire the reader to do just that.

Second, we must be counter-cultural, rather than obsessed with material things or financial gain. To seek financial security isn’t wrong. In itself, it can contribute to a family’s sense of peace and well-being, one available to few people today. Yet this is what I love about The Little Oratory: its authors seek to redeem possessions rather than renounce them. The beauty of this book is in its little tips for creating prayer altars throughout the home, making it more beautiful, reminding the dwellers of the higher law of peace and love. A simple couple of items—a wreath, a vase of flowers, a bowl of decorated eggs—can turn our thoughts heavenward and assist us in prayer. A rosary of pearls hanging on a hook may well transform a dull corner into an inspiring one. The Kingdom of Heaven is like those pearls, and its entrance turns us from what is dull to what is bright, shining, and alive. And while not quickly won, nor easily found, it is a treasure well worth the cost.

Finally, The Little Oratory challenges us to renounce all pride for love of Jesus and our neighbor. This book taught me that we all have much room to grow. In particular, it reminded me that our strength comes from God alone. A Christian’s steadiness and even confidence in life must ultimately come from the love and peace that come from knowing Christ. One particular instance in which this meets our lives, practically speaking? Lawler and Clayton’s advice about the encouragement of spouses to engage in prayer. One chapter is entitled “Who Prays and Who Leads Prayer in the Little Oratory?” I loved this particular chapter, which considers the roles of various members within the family’s prayer life. In renouncing our own ego and self-absorption even in this area of life, which is so common in this day and age, we may find a momentary respite. We are also to follow our Father’s will and seek to know Jesus better. The Little Oratory offers us the opportunity of making this a common part of our everyday life—renouncing our own will for that of a Higher Law. In doing so, it is a book that just might change your life.

Tacy Williams Beck is a wife and mother to three girls and one boy. She likes to read, bake, sew, and, of course, write. Read more of her articles at Real Housekeeping here and Catholic Mom here. Follow her on Pinterest here.

St Helena and the Triumph of the Cross

Today, September 14, is the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, celebrated on the day that it is believed that St Helena discovered the remains of Christ’s cross in the Holy Land.

Wrap your head around that for a minute. Today, centuries ago, a woman, who happened to be the mother of the Holy Roman Emperor and who later was declared a saint, actually found the remains of the Cross on which Jesus, the Son of God, was crucified and died for our sins.

St Helena, from the Wedding Church at Cana

St Helena, from the Wedding Church at Cana

Ok, so some people are sure to argue that it mightn’t have been exactly September 14th when she found the cross . . . fine. Shoot. I’m sure some people will argue she didn’t find it at all. Whatever. For the record, I believe that she did find Jesus’ Cross in the ditch where his executioners threw it. I believe that that ditch is today in the chapel that bears her name in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and it very well could have been September 14th.

The Chapel of St Helena lies in the bowels of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, down a flight of stairs marked by crosses from hundreds of pilgrims over the centuries. In the corner is a small slab of marble, placed over the spot where it is believe St Helena found the Cross.

For a closer look at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Chapel of St Helena, and to learn about how she managed to build one church over both the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, check out the final episode of The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land, embedded at the end of this post. This beautiful video, produced by the Franciscan Media Center, also shows you the Chapel of St Helena at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and explains how the finding of the Cross is celebrated on May 7th in the Holy Land. This video shows how, on September 14th, the relics of the Cross are shown to the congregation.

Now, let’s talk about how absolutely amazing this whole Feast is, shall we? And how very much we need it today, three days after the 13th anniversary of the horrific events in New York City one bright and sunny morning, and as any number of horrific and soul-sucking events are taking place, many of which are done, falsely of course, in the name of God.

I need to believe in the Triumph of the Cross. I bet my entire life on it. Don’t you?

IMG_0573

I think back to the Holy Land in 2011, when we were filming the Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land, and were walking the dark streets of Jerusalem along the Via Dolorosa (the Way of the Cross). What do we say at the beginning of every station?

“We adore you, Oh Christ, and we praise you, because by Your Holy Cross, You have redeemed the world.”

By Your Holy Cross, You have redeemed the world.

Fulton Sheen, in his amazing book Life of Christ, writes:

The story of every human life begins with birth and ends with death. In the Person of Christ, however, it was His death that was first and His life that was last. The scripture describes Him as “the Lamb slain as it were, from the beginning of the world.” He was slain in intention by the first sin and rebellion against God. It was not so much that His birth cast a shadow on His life and thus led to His death; it was rather that the Cross was first, and cast its shadow back to His birth. His has been the only life in the world that was ever lived backward. As the flower in the crannied wall tells the poet of nature, and as the atom is the miniature of the solar system, so too, His birth tells the mystery of the gibbet. He went from the known to the known, from the reason of His coming manifested by His name “Jesus” or “Savior” to the fulfillment of His coming, namely, His death on the Cross.

A baby with the shadow of the Cross on his forehead. His whole life it was there—His destiny. His purpose. And the means of our redemption.

Heinrich Hoffmann’s haunting image, “Christ in Gethsemane” hangs in my bedroom, and I look at it every morning as I awake and every night before I go to sleep.

Christ in the Garden of GethsemaneHeinrich Hofmann, 1890

Heinrich Hoffmanns “Christ in Gethsemane”, my favorite image of Jesus in the Garden

As a child, the idea that Jesus would have been alone in the Garden, suffering so much that he sweat blood, haunted me. I would often tell God that, if I had been there, I would have stayed awake! Yesiree! Years later, I read that Jesus sweat blood because at that moment, the sins of all of mankind, from Adam until the end of the world were placed before him, so that He might choose to do the thing for which he came and redeem us all, or to give up. I later read somewhere that when He asked His Heavenly Father to take the cup from him, He was thinking about the lukewarm souls—the people who could have cared less about what He was about to suffer for them. But then, when I found out that I could be there with Him in the Garden, and pray for Him and console Him today! Even as I sit in my office looking out of my window! Well, prayer and Holy Hours took on a life for me.

The Triumph of the Cross took place some 2014 years ago, one day on a hill outside of the walls of Jerusalem. And it continues to take place every single moment of every day since. The Cross will always triumph, no matter what goes on around us.

That gives me strength. That gives me hope.

My parish recently replaced an image of Jesus Resurrected with a beautiful statue of Jesus, dead on the Cross. I know that there are some people who think the sight of Jesus dead on the Cross is depressing, and they find the Resurrection so much more hopeful. I’m not one of those people.

StPhilipCrucifix

New crucifix at my parish

I LOVE the Cross.

Why?

Well, for one thing, it’s my future. It’s your future, too. In fact, Jesus very clearly promised it to all of us, if we want to follow Him, that is.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” –Matthew 16:24-25

Sure, the implication is that Resurrection and happiness in Heaven will follow, but first comes the Cross, baby. Better get used to it.

In The Passion of the Christ, one of the thieves who are crucified alongside Jesus yells out to him, “Why do you embrace your cross, you fool?!”

We’re all called to embrace our crosses, whatever they may be. And the awesome thing about it is that the cross is not just a symbol of God’s love for us, but it is an embrace from God to us.

Early Christians would pray,

O cross, you are the glorious sign of our victory. Through your power may we share in the triumph of Christ Jesus.

IMG_3590

Crucifix from the Irish chapel at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC

Let us continue those prayers ourselves, today and every day as we struggle through this pilgrimage of life. And when your eyes rest on a crucifix or a cross, remember this:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.

–John 3:16-17

Diana von Glahn is the co-producer (along with husband, David), writer, editor, and host of The Faithful Traveler, a travel series on EWTN, that explores the art, architecture, history and doctrine behind Catholic churches, shrines and places of pilgrimage throughout the world. She is the author of The Mini Book of Saints. She blogs here twice a month, at SpiritualDirection.com, and on her own website, and can be found on FacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest, and Google+. Her first series, The Faithful Traveler in the US: East Coast Shrines, and her second series, The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land, can both be seen on EWTN (check listings) and on her website, where she also sells DVDs of both programs. She is organizing a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in April 2014, and will be journeying to Portugal this October to film her new series, The Faithful Traveler in Portugal.