On Burning Your Selfies

As part of my research for a family memoir, I found myself in Colombia a couple of years ago interviewing relatives about my great-grandfather’s life. The memoir was inspired by a manuscript he left behind, in which he narrates a series of amazing episodes from his life in early to mid 20th century Colombia. While my great-grandfather left a lot of material for me to work with, there remained some significant gaps, since the manuscript tends to focus on his most exciting and outlandish memories. It does make for great reading, yet one is left wondering about some of the most important aspects of his life, which to him seem to have been so obvious as to not require putting down on paper. In particular, I needed my relatives to give me more details about his wife, my great-grandmother, whom it is clear from the writing that he adored, and yet about whom he gives few specifics, except for the constant mention of her “ensnaring eyes.” While the manuscript left me with a very strong sense of who he was, the woman who was his lifelong love remained a mystery to me. I felt that if I was going to proceed with the memoir, this was a gap I needed to fill.

1175278_10151562132766301_1330951822_n

My great-grandparents, Rafael Eduardo García Luque and María Luisa García Martínez.

Digging through closets and the minds of my relatives yielded an abundance of old photographs, stories, and even more writings from my great-grandfather. Through them, I started forming a mental picture of my great-grandmother, but what I really wanted was to get a sense of who she was in her own words. Yet as I kept looking, not a single letter she had penned turned up. This might not have surprised me in another context, but the Garcías are nothing short of addicted to family memorabilia. Surely she had written something that someone had lovingly kept?

Determined to find what I needed, I scheduled a meeting with about fifteen relatives who had known her. I was asking my great aunt for details of her parents’ engagement, when at last, finding herself at a loss, she unveiled the mystery for me.

“It’s a pity,” she said, “after Papá died, she took all the letters they had ever written to each other and burned them.”

She did what? I barely avoided responding to my elderly aunt with an expletive. This was the treasure trove I was looking for! How, how could she have just burned it?

For a long time, I struggled to understand her decision. It seemed pointless and wasteful to me. Why destroy the record of a life and a love story that her descendants would probably have cherished for generations? What good had it been to put her thoughts and feelings down on paper only to turn them into ash? Her marriage to my great-grandfather could have lived on indefinitely through those letters—how could she let those memories just disappear?

My frustration over her actions lasted until a couple of weeks ago, when for some reason I found myself thinking again about what she had done. It suddenly occurred to me that the burning of her letters was the exact contradiction of the modern obsession with posting one’s life on social media. Rather than taking some mundane event or offhand thought—let alone an awkward selfie—and making it public, she had taken what I can only imagine was a deep and significant part of her life and declared it private for all time.

I thought then of the way many of us can behave these days when going on vacation. We’re lying under a palm tree on some glorious beach, away from it all, a glimmering ocean before us—except we can’t see it because we’re too busy posting pictures of it on Instagram. And it doesn’t happen only during vacations. How many of us have not found ourselves at some point of the day considering something we might do or say from the point of view of its Facebook potential? Are we actually living, or has our life become so much research for potential posts?

Self-consciousness is one of the great gifts of being human, but it doesn’t come without its costs. Social media poses the danger of making us our own paparazzi, thus turning any moment which otherwise we might have simply lived—lived authentically—into an occasion for “crafting our brand.” A wealth of research has established that when extrinsic rewards are introduced into an activity, intrinsic motivations die off. When we live to post, we can begin losing our ability to enjoy our actions for their own sake—even our basic pleasures. A great meal seems less delicious when our friends fail to admire the picture of it we shared. Our actions suddenly lose their meaning without the “likes” to vindicate their existence.

I think that long before the existence of the Internet, my great-grandmother knew this. I think that in burning her letters, she was protecting her marriage. I think she was declaring—not to the world, but to herself—that what she had lived with her husband was good in itself, that its worth did not depend on anyone else’s approval or remembrance.

A book is not the same thing as a Facebook update, but to the aspiring memorist, hers is not a comfortable lesson to hear.

Vampire Weekend Contra Mundum

Or, if that title isn’t clever enough

 Vampire Weekend Feels a Twitch Upon the Thread

As a confirmed hipster with snobbish inclinations, I often bore houseguests by handing them a home-brewed ale and forcing them to admire the sound of vinyl records spinning on my vintage turntable. A record that has been in frequent rotation is Vampire Weekend’s 2nd album, Contra, music that is delightfully energetic and engaging. The lyrics have always been clever and particularly appeal to me because they humorously describe locales in New England in which I have spent quite a bit of time (Yes, Hyannisport can be a drag). It’s always been a bit of a lark, though, which is fine, because sometimes in life we don’t need to be put through an emotional wringer to encounter good art. There is greatness in the talent of a humorist, something serious in a laugh.

For all of us, though, there is a season for everything, and for Vampire Weekend it is time to get introspective. In an article in the New York Times of May 18, 2013 entitled “Setting Their Sights On Wider Vistas,” lyricist Ezra Koenig says that he has come to see the band’s 3rd album, Modern Vampires in the City, as the completion of a trilogy. He then says something I would never in a million years have expected to come from a pop singer about his work, “It reminded me of ‘Brideshead Revisited.’” It reminded him of Brideshead! When asked to name my favorite novel, I cannot get the words “Brideshead Revisited” out of my mouth quickly enough to display my enthusiasm for Evelyn Waugh’s book. I will hound every single acquaintance for the rest of their lives until they both read the book and watch the miniseries starring Jeremy Irons. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking, insightful, and difficult piece of work. Not the stuff of your typical pop song.

Koenig goes on, explaining, “The naïve joyous school days in the beginning. Then the expansion of the world, travel, seeing other places, learning a little bit more about how people live. And then the end is a little bit of growing up, starting to think more seriously about your life and your faith. If people could look at our three albums as a bildungsroman, I’d be O.K. with that.”

The earlier work by Vampire Weekend corresponds to the first half of Waugh’s Book, a time of carefree living in Arcadia, new friendships, and the glamour of the English aristocracy. In time, the life of each member of the Brideshead family is complicated: Sebastian’s by alcoholism, Lord Marchmain’s by the prospect of an unprovided death without last rites, Julia’s by divorce and the guilt of living in adultery, and through it all is friend of the family, Charles, who is constantly searching for meaning. After a long absence, the Great War brings Charles back to a now abandoned Brideshead, the world is shattering, a proud family dissipated, and he has seen these halls before.

Earlier in the book, Charles declares loyalty to his embattled friend, fervently affirming, “No, I’m with you, Sebastian contra mundum.” The two men know that they are against the world. The vain hope of wealth and luxury, education and travel, career and women, these have all been shown to be shallow and unworthy. And yet, they do not know precisely what it is that they do want.

Vampire Weekend express much the same sentiment. They are world weary. They are on the lookout for something more, but remain conflicted by the hiddenness of God. In the song “Ya Hey” (Get it? Yahweh!) Koenig sings “America don’t love you/So I could never love you/In spite of everything” In “Unbelievers,” he sings, “…what holy water contains a little drop, a little drop for me?” In the end, is the band converted? Is Charles Ryder converted? The answer is never that easy, for the ways of the divine are mysterious and the human will is frequently late to love that which is lovely. Have no fears, though, this is the pilgrimage we all make. In Brideshead, Julia cries, “I’ve always been bad.  Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God…” Perhaps, she says, it is the case that, “however bad I am, he won’t quite despair of me in the end.”  The song “Arrow” ends with these words, “Oh it’s no use at all/But that life in the Church could still remain.” Indeed, for all of us in any situation, in a darkening world, the altar lamp still burns brightly.

Brideshead Chapel

 

 

(With advancing years, my hipster credentials are slipping a bit and I missed the release of Modern Vampires in the City by almost a full year and am only now listening to it. The blog “Unpleasant Accents” has shown itself to be the true fan by beating me to this topic, writing on Koenig’s words about Brideshead Revisited back in the spring. I heartily recommend checking out their thoughts: http://unpleasantaccents.blogspot.com/2014/02/vampire-weekend-waugh-revisited.html )

Four Lessons I Learned From Bifocals

For the record, I am way too young to be wearing bifocals. When I brought the prescription to the lady who sold me the glasses, she did a double take and said, “Are you sure this is correct?” Unfortunately, it was.

Technically, my glasses are not “bifocals” but “progressive lenses,” which sounds a lot less like I need to apply for an AARP card, but nobody knows what it means. “Do they change colors when you move from sunlight to indoors?” No. Nothing so fancy. They just help me see. The distance prescription is at the top, moving seamlessly toward the close-up prescription at the bottom, gradually changing magnification (or whatever the proper optometric term might be.) The result is that, as long as I don’t try to look at things from crazy angles–say, watching TV while lying flat on the floor–the world remains nicely in focus, just as if I had never left my good old single-vision life behind.

It works, but the transition period is like wandering through a fun house built by Stephen King. I went to the optometrist because of eye strain and headaches; I left with even more eyestrain and full-out migraines, complete with all the trimmings. Re-training one’s brain to see the world in distance-specific segments, then asking it to add them together into a coherent whole, is seriously painful. New synapses don’t come cheap when you’re old enough to need bifocals.

optical illusion Lesson #1: Only your brain can change your mind.

We often forget how dependent we are on that squishy gray stuff upstairs to separate truth from illusion. We have no perception apart from the brain, and the brain is a physical object requiring physical change in order to see things differently. No matter how blurry or false our original perception, there are still migraines that have to happen before a person can accept a new point of view.

  Thankfully, the migraines finally subsided, and my eyes stopped going into open rebellion every time I switched to my old single-vision sunglasses. (I couldn’t afford to replace them. This progressive stuff is expensive.) However, for months after chopping vegetables and using a computer became comfortable, the field of vision for reading still appeared to be about the size of a quarter. I couldn’t even get a whole page into focus without moving either my head or the book. Have you ever tried to get lost in a story while constantly fighting your own eyes? I promise, it doesn’t work very well.

 Lesson #2: The things we’re closest to are the hardest to see clearly.salt

This is an old one: no forest for the trees. But, again, if we stop to think about the way our eyes are programmed, we might also find a little insight into our minds. See those things that look like boulders next to this paragraph? They’re really salt and pepper grains under a microscope. When we get too close, our brains tell us that molehills are mountains, and we have no way to combat that daunting perception except to step away.

  With enough practice, my reading difficulties were finally resolved, and I have devoured a few rather good novels in recent weeks. Time proved once again that it cures all things.

whirlpool eyeLesson #3: Your brain will accept anything as reality if you stare at it long enough.

No matter what kind of multi-focal craziness you attempt to impose on it, your gray matter will eventually cave and start sending you signals that this is the way the world should be. So be careful what you stare at.

  Now that I am acclimated to life with bifocals, is everything rosy and crystal clear? Mostly. I am seeing better than I did before, but there are still moments when it is impossible to look at something through the proper part of the lens–when my children climb on me and their faces go all fuzzy, or when I have to reach things in low cabinets or over my head. There is no way to avoid all the crazy angles.

mirror darklyLesson #4: Some things will always be blurry.

We only view this life but darkly, through a glass. My vision may sometimes seem sharp and perfect, but I hope I can let the blurriness make me grateful, and remind me always to pray for better glasses.

Mary, marigolds, and mercy: an Assumption reflection.

My garden right now, before the autumn crops burgeon, is a wilderness of overloaded tomato vines reeling off their stakes and unpruned marigolds throwing out blooms like scattered pennies. They seem to thrive on neglect; they reward minimal effort with an abundant harvest. What, I wonder, would they do for a careful gardener? So I Googled proper ways of caring for my marigolds and found that they are associated with today’s feast, and with Mary in general. They were blessed at Mass on this day in the past, along with other herbs and flowers known to have healing properties.

Because I’d rather read than garden, this search also led me to Eugenia Collier’s short story “Marigolds“, concerning a young African American woman and her community in pre-Civil-Rights-Era America. Apparently it’s often anthologized and taught in literature courses, but I’ve only now discovered it and found it perfect reading for this feast day. To my mind Mary is silently everywhere in it, as it deals with themes of beauty, repentance, and what it means for a woman to deal maturely with sorrow and injustice and human suffering. In Mary, innocence and compassion coexist, as the narrator posits they cannot in ordinary humans. Mary is wisdom without sin; she stands against evil yet stands in favor of us weak, broken humans at every moment. As the mother of Jesus, she is the mother of mercy. So in light of the story’s last line, in light of my neglected garden, I am now seeing marigolds as a symbol of mercy: the beauty given in response to our repentance, despite our total lack of deserving.

 

Fatima and the Immaculate Heart of Mary

August is dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and in her honor, I’d like to look at a one of the best-known Marian apparitions in modern times: the apparition of the Virgin Mary to three small shepherds in the remote Portuguese town of Fatima. In my next blog, I’ll explore a shrine here in the United States that is dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the message of Fatima: The National Blue Army Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Washington, New Jersey.

I mentioned Lucia dos Santos and Francisco and Jacinta Marto in my last blog post on pilgrimage and redemptive suffering, and truth be told, they have been on my mind a lot lately.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Partly because I feel that the state of the world during the time of these apparitions in 1917 seems so similar to the state of our world today. But probably mostly because I have been invited to Portugal later this year to film some of the many amazing Catholic shrines and places of pilgrimage in that country, and Fatima is at the top of our list.

The Basilica at the Shrine to Our Lady in Fatima

The Basilica at the Shrine to Our Lady in Fatima

I’ve never been to Fatima, but have known the story of Mary and three pastorinhos all my life. The Fatima story has so much to teach us about prayer and sacrifice, but one thing I think Fatima teaches us very strongly is that we underestimate children. As a child, I loved knowing that God entrusted someone as young as Jacinta, who was six years old when the Angel of Portugal first appeared to her and had just turned seven when she first met Mary, with the heavy cross of a vision of Hell, the burden of redemptive sacrifice and suffering, and even the date, time, and manner of her own death.

But I am jumping ahead. First, let me say that if you aren’t familiar with Fatima, the one book you must read is Fatima in Lucia’s own Words. This book is a collection of letters, written by Lucia, the eldest of the three shepherds, in which she tells the story of the apparitions, and shares with us what her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta, were like before and after the apparitions. If you’d rather watch a movie about Fatima, The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima is probably best known, although is not entirely true to history and is pretty cheesy (in my opinion).  The 13th Day, a more recent production, has similar issues in my opinion. Finding Fatima is a good documentary on the apparitions, which I do recommend.

The apparitions at Fatima are both complex and simple. They are complex because they occurred over a period of many months, during which a lot of things happened. They are simple, because the messages relayed to the children by the Angel of Portugal and the Virgin Mary were pretty much the same: pray, offer up sacrifices, and pray some more. Oh, and then there were some secrets… but we’ll get to those.

The Angel of Portugal

Angel at Blue Army Shrine

Angel at Blue Army Shrine

The miraculous events at Fatima began in Spring of 1916, in the middle of the “Great War” (World War I). Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta were tending the sheep of their families, which was not unusual for 6, 7, and 9 year olds to do back when everybody worked to make ends meet. They had just finished praying a rosary when the wind began to blow and they saw coming toward them a light, “whiter than snow in the form of a young man … as brilliant as crystal in the rays of the sun.” (Sister Lucia’s words are taken from Fatima in Lucia’s Words, which can also be found online.)

“Do not be afraid. I am the angel of peace. Pray with me.”

He knelt, bending his forehead to the ground, and the children followed suit.

My God, I believe, I adore, I hope, and I love You. I ask pardon for those who do not believe, do not adore, do not hope, and do not  love You.

Later that summer, the angel appeared to them as they played, saying,

What are you doing? You must pray! Pray! The hearts of Jesus and Mary have merciful designs for you. You must offer your prayers and sacrifices to God, the Most High.

“But how are we to sacrifice?” Lucia asked.

In every way you can offer sacrifice to God in reparation for the sins by which He is offended, and in supplication for sinners. In this way you will bring peace to our country, for I am its guardian angel, the Angel of Portugal. Above all, bear and accept with patience the sufferings God will send you.

The Angel’s words had the intended effect on the children: they played less and prayed more, looking for any opportunity to offer up something in reparation for the sins of the world.

That fall, the Angel visited them for the last time. As the children were in the midst of praying, they saw a light and saw, as Lucia recounts, “The Angel was holding in his left hand a chalice and over it, in the air, was a host from which drops of blood fell into the chalice.”

The Angel of Portugal gives the pastorinhos the Holy Eucharist

The Angel of Portugal gives the pastorinhos the Holy Eucharist

Leaving the chalice in the air, the Angel knelt next to the children and told them to repeat three times:

Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I adore You profoundly, and I offer You the Most Precious Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, present in all the tabernacles of the world, in reparation for the outrages, sacrileges and indifferences by which He is offended. And by the infinite merits of His most Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I beg the conversion of poor sinners.

The Angel rose and gave Lucia the host and the contents of the chalice to Francisco and Jacinta, saying,

Eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ terribly outraged by the ingratitude of men. Offer reparation for their sakes and console God.

In this way, Lucia says, “catechized in prayer, reparative suffering, and the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, and strengthened by the Bread of Angels” the three little shepherds were prepared for what lie ahead.

The Virgin Mary

BlueArmy-42

On May 13, 1917, Lucia, now 10, Francisco, almost 9, and Jacinta, newly turned 7, were out with the sheep on the Cova da Iria, a hilly plot of land owned by Lucia’s father. They had prayed a shortened rosary, shouting out the first few words of each prayer and letting the echoing hills take it from there, when they saw what they thought was lightning off in the distance. They had just started off for home when they saw a strange light above a holm oak on the hillside.

According to Lucia, they saw a lady, “dressed in white, shining brighter than the sun, giving out rays of clear and intense light, just like a crystal goblet full of pure water when the fiery sun passes through it. … The Lady wore a pure white mantle, edged with gold and which fell to her feet. In her hands the beads of a rosary shone like stars, with its crucifix the most radiant gem of all.”

The Lady told the children not to be afraid, and when asked, said that she came from Heaven. She then told the children what she wanted of them:

I want you to return here on the thirteenth of each month for the next six months, and at the very same hour. Later I shall tell you who I am, and what it is that I most desire. And I shall return here yet a seventh time.

The children asked a few questions, which she answered simply, telling them that they would all go to Heaven, although Francisco had to pray many Rosaries first. Then she asked,

Will you offer yourselves to God, and bear all the sufferings He sends you? In atonement for all the sins that offend Him? And for the conversion of sinners?

“Oh, we will, we will!” the children replied.

Then you will have a great deal to suffer, but the grace of God will be with you and will strengthen you.

The Lady opened her hands and bathed the children in a heavenly light, in which they saw God. They knelt and prayed, as the Lady said,

Say the Rosary every day, to bring peace to the world and an end to the war.

She rose to the East and disappeared in the distance.

The three little shepherds

The three little shepherds

As soon as the kids got home, the Lady’s words came true. Jacinta spilled the beans about the vision and Lucia’s mother angrily refused to believe that her daughter was not telling a lie. Jacinta and Francisco’s parents believed them from the get go. As the months progressed, Lucia’s sufferings increased, as her mother punished her for “telling lies” and her family had to stop farming the Cova da Iria due to the trampling of those hoping to share in the visions. Eventually, the dos Santos family had to sell their sheep, making it even more difficult for them to earn a living. Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta all suffered as a result of the throngs of people who continually sought after them, begging them to tell the Lady this or that, and simply wanting to be in their presence.

In June, the lady taught the children a short prayer that she asked them to pray after every mystery of the Rosary:

O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fire of hell. Take all souls to heaven, especially those who are most in need.

She told them that while Jacinta and Francisco would go to Heaven soon, Lucia would remain on earth “a little longer” because Jesus wished that she would make the Lady known and loved, and that she would establish devotion in the world to her Immaculate Heart. (Lucia lived to be 97, which is a very insight into what God considers to be “a little while”!)

In July, the Lady taught them another prayer they should say when they made sacrifices:

O Jesus, this is for love of Thee, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for offences committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

She then revealed what are known as the Three Secrets of Fatima. Francisco and Jacinta took them to their graves, leaving Lucia to reveal them more than 25 years after she first heard them.

The First Secret: The Vision of Hell

Salvador Dali's Vision of Hell, inspired by the vision at Fatima

Salvador Dali’s Vision of Hell, inspired by the vision at Fatima

Mary stretched out her arms, and the children saw, as Lucia described, “a sea of fire. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now following back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. … The demons could be distinguished by their terrifying and repellant likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals.”

Mary said,

You have seen hell, where the souls of poor sinners go. It is to save them that God wants to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If you do what I tell you, many souls will be saved, and there will be peace.

The Second Secret: World War II

Engulfed in the midst of the Great War, no one could have imagined that the war would end the following year, and that another, greater war would follow within less than 25 years. But the Virgin Mary knew, and she then told the children:

This war will end, but if men do not refrain from offending God, another and more terrible war will begin during the pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night that is lit by a strange and unknown light, you will know it is the sign God gives you that He is about to punish the world with war and with hunger, and by the persecution of the Church and the Holy Father. 

At that time, the Pope was Benedict XV, but on February 6, 1922, Pius XI would succeed him and would be Pope until February 10, 1939. On the evening of January 25, 1938, during his Pontificate, the skies of all of Europe, and parts of Australia, Bermuda, Africa, and the United States lit up with a shimmering curtain of fire. Brilliant arcs and beams of red, green, and blue light rose and pulsated in the night sky.

Aurora Borealis

Aurora Borealis

While many considered this light display to be the Aurora Borealis, a natural light display caused by the collision of solar winds and magnetospheric charged particles in a high altitude, this display was so widespread and intense, it was unlike any aurora ever recorded before or since. In March of that year, Germany announced the Anschluss, or union, with Austria which began the chain of events that led to the Holocaust and World War II.

To prevent this, I shall come to the world to ask that Russia be consecrated to my Immaculate Heart, and I shall ask that on the First Saturday of every month Communions of reparation be made in atonement for the sins-of the world. If my wishes are fulfilled, Russia will be converted and there will be peace; if not, then Russia will spread her errors throughout the world, bringing new wars and persecution of the Church; the good will be martyred and the Holy Father will have much to suffer; certain nations will be annihilated. But in the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she will be converted, and the world will enjoy a period of peace. In Portugal the faith will always be preserved…

In February of that year, the Russian Revolution began, leading to the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922. During its existence from that year until 1991, the Soviet Union overpowered fifteen countries, forcing its atheistic principles on them. Communism spread to China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba, where religion was not—and in some places is still not—tolerated. Churches were destroyed and many faithful joined the ranks of the martyrs. In light of recent events, some might argue that Russia continues to spread her errors, bringing new wars and annihilating many countries.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On October 31, 1942, Pope Pius XII partially consecrated the world to Our Lady, but was lacking the union with all the bishops of the world. But on March 25, 1984, Pope John Paul II, in union with the bishops of the world, successfully consecrated Russia to Mary’s Immaculate Heart, as requested by Our Lady.

Pope John Paul II successfully consecrates the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary

Pope John Paul II successfully consecrates the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary

How do we know? Lucia confirmed it. (EWTN provides a very good Chronology of the attempted consecrations, as well as providing Sr. Lucia’s letter to Pope Pius XII in which she requests that the world and Russia be consecrated to Mary’s Immaculate Heart.) And almost exactly a year later, Gorbachev took the reigns of the Soviet Union and immediately began reforming the country. The Berlin Wall fell, heralding the beginning of the end of Communism in Europe. By Christmas 1991, the Soviet Union was a thing of the past.

Pope Francis again consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on October 13, 2013. I guess it can’t hurt to be thorough, can it?

The Third Secret: The Bishop Dressed in White

The Third Secret of Fatima is a favorite among conspiracy theorists, because many of them like to argue that it has yet to be revealed. But let me just say up front that it has been revealed: Lucia said so herself, and Lucia doesn’t tell lies. The secret was revealed by Lucia in a letter written on January 3, 1944 at the request of the Bishop of Leiria. As Lucia herself states in the letter, “What is the secret? It seems to me that I can reveal it, since I already have permission from Heaven to do so.” (You can see her original letter on the Vatican website.) She goes on to describe what the Blessed Mother showed the three children on that day:

“…we saw an Angel with a flaming sword in his left hand; flashing, it gave out flames that looked as though they would set the world on fire; but they died out in contact with the splendor that Our Lady radiated towards him from her right hand: pointing to the earth with his right hand, the Angel cried out in a loud voice: ‘Penance, Penance, Penance!’ And we saw in an immense light that is God: ‘something similar to how people appear in a mirror when they pass in front of it’ a Bishop dressed in White ‘we had the impression that it was the Holy Father’. Other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious going up a steep mountain, at the top of which there was a big Cross of rough-hewn trunks as of a cork-tree with the bark; before reaching there the Holy Father passed through a big city half in ruins and half trembling with halting step, afflicted with pain and sorrow, he prayed for the souls of the corpses he met on his way; having reached the top of the mountain, on his knees at the foot of the big Cross he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him, and in the same way there died one after another the other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious, and various lay people of different ranks and positions. Beneath the two arms of the Cross there were two Angels each with a crystal aspersorium in his hand, in which they gathered up the blood of the Martyrs and with it sprinkled the souls that were making their way to God.

The letter was sent to the Bishop of Leiria who kept it in his archives until 1957, when he sent it to the Vatican. It is believed that Pope Pius XII never read the letter, as it was unsealed when Pope John XXIII read it on August 17, 1959. He returned the letter to the Vatican’s archives. On March 27, 1965, Pope Paul VI read the letter and did the same.

But the meaning of the letter wasn’t understood until Pope John Paul II read the letter in May of 1981 as he lay in the hospital, recovering from an attempt on his life. Then, it clicked. He knew that he had been the Bishop dressed in white, but, as he later said, it was “a motherly hand which guided the bullet’s path”, enabling the “dying Pope” that the pastorinhos saw to halt “at the threshold of death”. (Pope John Paul II. Meditation with the Italian Bishops from the Policlinico GemelliInsegnamenti, vol XVII/1, 1994, p. 1061.) The Third Secret was revealed to the world on May 13, 2000, when Pope John Paul II beatified Jacinta and Francisco. Lucia was in the audience.

Sister Lucia and Pope John Paul II

Sister Lucia and Pope John Paul II

The Miracle of the Sun

In August, the children’s meeting with Mary was postponed by two days due to the local government’s decision to kidnap the children and put them in jail to scare them into telling the “truth”. (It didn’t work.) When they met her on August 19th, the Lady continued to ask them to return to the Cova and to keep praying the Rosary, and she promised that in the last month, she would perform a miracle so that “all may believe.” In September, she was even more specific, saying,

In October Our Lord will come, as well as Our Lady of Sorrows and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Saint Joseph will appear with the Child Jesus to bless the world. 

On October 13th, the Lady was true to her word.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It had been raining for two days, and the crowd of around 70,000 people were wet, soggy, and cold. The children were there, as promised, and the Lady made her appearance as the sun hit its highest point in the sky.

“What do you want of me?” Lucia asked.

I want a chapel built here in my honor. I want you to continue saying the Rosary every day. The war will end soon, and the soldiers will return to their homes.

“Yes. Yes. Will you tell me your name?”

I am the Lady of the Rosary.

“I have many petitions from many people. Will you grant them?”

Some I shall grant, and others I must deny. People must amend their lives and ask pardon for their sins. They must not offend our Lord any more, for He is already too much offended! 

“And is that all you have to ask?”

There is nothing more.

Our Lady then raised her hands to the cloud-covered sky. The rain had stopped, and suddenly the sun burst through the dark clouds.

“Look at the sun!” one of the children shouted. And that’s when they saw it—believers and non believers alike. According to the thousands of witnesses, including reporters from secular and anti-clerical newspapers and some people from many miles away, the sun, which they could look at without their eyes hurting, began spinning like a top and emitting a rainbow of lights. It lefts its place in the skies and came closer and closer to the earth, causing many to think they were about to die. And just as suddenly as it came closer, it moved back into its proper place.

And just like that—everything was dry, as if it had never rained. (Read eye-witness accounts.)

While the spectators saw the Miracle of the Sun, the three pastorinhos saw something completely different, which Lucia describes in her letters:

After our Lady had disappeared into the immense distance of the firmament, we beheld St. Joseph with the Child Jesus and Our Lady robed in white with a blue mantle, beside the sun. St. Joseph and the Child Jesus seemed to bless the world, for they traced the Sign of the Cross with their hands. When, a little later, this apparition disappeared, I saw Our Lord and Our Lady; it seemed to me to that it was Our Lady of Sorrows (Dolours). Our Lord appeared to bless the world in the same manner as St. Joseph had done. This apparition also vanished, and I saw Our Lady once more, this time resembling Our Lady of Carmel.

The three shepherds at the Cova da Iria after the Miracle of the Sun, October 1917

The three shepherds at the Cova da Iria after the Miracle of the Sun, October 1917

The Aftermath and Tuy

As Our Lady promised, Jacinta and Francisco went to Heaven sooner than later. Francisco contracted the flu, an epidemic of which was killing people around the world. He died on April 4, 1919, excited to finally be able to console God, whom he had always seen as being so sad because of the sins of the world. The Blessed Mother told Jacinta when and how she would die: on February 20, 1920, alone in Lisbon from the flu. She suffered greatly from this knowledge, but up to the last, she offered up her suffering for the conversion of sinners.

The hospital where Jacinta died

The hospital where Jacinta died

In 1921, at 14 years of age, Lucia went to a school in Porto, run by the religious Order of St. Dorothea. Despite her desire to become a Carmelite, she joined the Sisters of St Dorothea out of obedience in Tuy, Spain.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On June 13, 1929, as she prayed in the chapel at Tuy, Lucia received the last vision promised by Our Lady (“I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia….”).

Suddenly the whole chapel was illumined by a supernatural light, and above the altar appeared a cross of light, reaching to the ceiling. In a brighter light on the upper part of the cross, could be seen the face of a man and His body as far as the waist; upon His breast was a dove of light; nailed to the cross was the body of another man. A little below the waist, I could see a chalice and a large Host suspended in the air, onto which drops of Blood were falling from the face of Jesus Crucified and from the wound in His side.

These drops ran down onto the Host and dropped into the chalice. Beneath the right arm of the cross was Our Lady, and in Her hand was Her Immaculate Heart. (It was Our Lady of Fatima, with the Immaculate Heart in Her left hand, without sword or roses, but with a crown of thorns and flames). Under the left arm of the cross, large letters, as if of crystal clear water which ran down upon the altar, formed these words: ‘Grace and Mercy.’

I understood that it was the Mystery of the Most Holy Trinity which was shown to me, and I received lights about this mystery which I am not permitted to reveal.

Our Lady then said to me: ‘The moment has come in which God asks of the Holy Father to make, and to order that in union with him, and at the same time, all the bishops of the world make the Consecration of Russia to My Immaculate Heart’ promising to convert  it because of this day of prayer and worldwide reparation.

The Request, by Joseph DeVito

The Request, by Joseph DeVito

Lucia’s desire to become a Carmelite was constant and strong, and while she prayed about it and even wrote to Pope Pius XII about it, who intervened on her behalf, there was great opposition for her to leave the Dorotheans. Since Lucia never seemed to be a willful person, her desire to enter Carmel must have been God’s will, as well. And eventually, on March 25, 1948, the Feast of the Annunciation and Holy Thursday, Lucia entered the Carmelite Order in Coimbra, Portugal, taking the name Lucia Maria do Imaculado Coração (Lucia Maria of the Immaculate Conception).

Sr Lucia the Carmelite

Sr Lucia the Carmelite

As promised, Lucia stuck around “a little longer”, living for another 87 years after the Virgin Mary’s apparitions. She died at Carmel in Coimbra on February 13, 2005. Three years later, Pope Benedict XVI waived the five-year waiting period necessary before opening her cause for beatification.

Sister Lucia dos Santos

Sister Lucia dos Santos

In my next post, I’ll explore The National Blue Army Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Washington, New Jersey, dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and to spreading the story and message of Fatima.

A Novena to the Immaculate Heart of Mary

Immaculate Heart of Mary, full of love for God and mankind, and of compassion for sinners, I consecrate myself entirely to you. I entrust to you the salvation of my soul. May my heart be ever united with yours, so that I may hate sin, love God and my neighbor, and reach eternal life together with those whom I love.

Mediatrix of All Graces and Mother of Mercy, remember the infinite treasure which your Divine Son has merited by His suffering and which he has confided to you for us, your children. Filled with confidence in your motherly heart, and for the sake of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, obtain for me the favor I ask: [Mention your request here].

Dearest Mother, if what I ask for should not be according to God’s will, pray that I may receive that which will be of greater benefit to my soul. May I experience the kindness of your intercession with Jesus during life and at the hour of my death? Amen.

Act of Consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary

O Mary, Virgin most powerful and Mother of mercy, Queen of Heaven and Refuge of sinners, we consecrate ourselves to thine immaculate heart.

We consecrate to thee our very being and our whole life; all that we have, all that we love, all that we are. To thee we give our bodies, our hearts, and our souls; to thee we give our homes, our families, our country. We desire that all that is in us and around us may belong to thee, and may share in the benefits of thy motherly benediction. And that this act of consecration may be truly efficacious and lasting, we renew this day at thy feet the promises of our Baptism and our first Holy Communion. We pledge ourselves to profess courageously and at all times the truths of our holy Faith, and to live as befits Catholics who are duly submissive to all the directions of the Pope and the Bishops in communions with him. We pledge ourselves to keep the commandments of God and His Church, in particular to keep holy the Lord’s Day. We likewise pledge ourselves to make the consoling practices of the Christian religion, and above all, Holy Communion, an integral part of our lives, insofar as we shall be able so to do. Finally, we promise thee, O glorious Mother of God and loving Mother of men, to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to the service of thy blessed cult, in order to hasten and assure, through the sovereignty of thine immaculate heart, the coming of the kingdom of the Sacred Heart of thine adorable Son, in our own hearts and in those of all men, in our country and in all the world, as in heaven, so on earth. Amen.

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 Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, 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 has begun offering pilgrimage tours to sites where The Faithful Traveler has travelled.

Dappled Links

Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy – The Atlantic
Fantasy author Lev Grossman reflects on the special power of Narnia.

Finding the Words – The New Yorker
“There’s one other thing I’d like to tell you about my grief: I was shocked to discover that I couldn’t read. Even poetry, which had always come to my rescue, couldn’t protect or console me.”

A Conversation with Christian Wiman – Image
“I wrote somewhere or other that to love one’s life is to assent to its terms, the severest of which is death.”

The Poetry of World War I – Poetry
Poems about the war, ordered by the year of their writing.

On Travel and Pilgrimage

On the morning of September, 11, 2001, I was living in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan. I had just started dating this really great guy, David, after praying a 54-day rosary novena, and life was good. That beautiful morning, as I made my way to work, I thought about how lucky David was to be flying to California for work on such a lovely day. As for me, I had just started a new diet and was trying to figure out what I would eat the next day when my girlfriends and I went out to see a movie.

Suffice it to say that after that day’s events, I very quickly nixed the diet and movie plans. As the days and weeks after dragged on, full of fear, uncertainty, and survival guilt, the last thing I could think of doing was going to see a movie or worrying about my weight. I was happy to be alive, whatever I weighed. The thought that people around the country were getting on with their lives and even enjoying themselves seemed surreal to me. Of course, I know now that there is little they could have done to make life easier for New York. Still, it was a difficult, frightening time.

Today, as I sit in my cushy office and look out at a beautiful blue-skied and puffy-clouded day, I ask myself the same question: what can I do to help the Christians in Iraq? The people of the Holy Land? The situation in Russia? The Congo? Or  Ukraine?

You see, I have been invited to Dappled Things to blog about travel. Travel from a Catholic perspective, to be precise. My husband, David, and I (that novena really worked!) produce a travel series called The Faithful Traveler, which broadcasts on EWTN. Our goals are simple: we want to show you some of the many amazing sacred sites within the Catholic Church, we want to teach you about the stories or people behind them, and we want to encourage you to visit. I figure, if I can bring you closer, God will touch your hearts in ways only He knows you need.

Diana von Glahn in the Holy Land

Diana von Glahn in the Holy Land

I’m thrilled to be able to show you some of the amazing places I’ve been and the amazing places I want to go. To tell you about the saints I love and the God I love even more, and how so many places on this planet raise my heart and mind to him.

But right now, the world seems to be falling apart, doesn’t it? And the last thing I want to do is tell you to go out and travel and have a grand old time when people are being martyred and ruthlessly kicked out of their homes and countries.

So I’m not going to blog about travel. Not in a touristy sense, at least. Instead, I’d like to blog about pilgrimage, and how your travel, turned into pilgrimage, can actually help those people who are suffering and dying. Maybe even change the hearts of the ones who are killing them, too.

Let me say this up front: I am a Catholic, through and through. I was blessed to have been baptized as an infant and I am blessed to have never turned away from the faith with which I was blessed. Don’t get me wrong, I sin,  like everyone else. But everything I see is seen through the eyes of faith. And so with that, I say, I believe in redemptive suffering and in offering up my suffering so that God might accept it in reparation for the sins committed by others, or so my sacrifices might prevent the sins of others.

This is why I believe that pilgrimage can help the current situation of the world. Go on pilgrimage. It doesn’t matter where. Go to the church down the street. Go to the closest monastery or cathedral. Go to a national shrine in your state or the next state over. Go to Europe. Go to Israel. Just go.

But when you go, offer up everything you suffer for those who are suffering more. Offer up your sufferings for the conversion of those who commit these atrocities. Make up sacrifices. Here are some ideas:

  • As you make your way: pray; don’t listen to the radio or watch movies; if you’re driving, follow the speed limit and don’t get upset when someone tailgates you or cuts you off.
  • Refrain from complaining, make a point of saying only nice things. SMILE, no matter what.
  • Make food sacrifices: don’t eat meat, skip a meal, eat nothing but bread and water all day, don’t eat sweets, don’t eat that one thing you really, really want.
  • At the pilgrimage site, pray all four mysteries of the rosary: joyful, luminous, sorrowful, and glorious.
  • Spend an hour praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament, even if its in the Tabernacle. Pray on your knees.
  • Make physical sacrifices: if it’s hot, wear something warm; if it’s cold, take something off (within reason); if you want to sit, stay standing; if you want to stand, stay seated.

Blessed Jacinta and Francisco Marto, and Lucia dos Santos, the little shepherds of Fatima who met the Virgin Mary long ago, were experts at making sacrifices for the conversion of sinners and in reparation for the many offenses committed against God and the Blessed Mother.

The three shepherds of Fatima

The three shepherds of Fatima

They ate food they didn’t like without complaining, gave food they liked away, kept quiet about physical suffering they endured, and daily sacrificed the annoyances of having to recount the tale of the apparitions to strangers and unfriendly interrogators over and over and over again. They whipped their legs with prickly weeds and wore a rope tied around their waists that drew blood. Even God thought that was a bit much. He told them, through the Blessed Mother, not to wear it at nighttime. They prayed with their little foreheads touching the ground, like the Angel of Portugal taught them. Any little thing they could sacrifice, they would, and with every thing they sacrificed, they would say the prayer taught them by the Angel:

O JESUS, it is for love of Thee, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary. 

Pilgrimage is so much more than just travel.  It is prayer in action. And for those of us who believe that prayer is not nothing, you can and should feel confident that simply by spending a day in prayer at a nearby church or sacred site, you can help those being terrorized or who are suffering around the world.

Pray for the conversion of hearts.

Pray for mercy on those who are dying and those who are killing.

Pray for peace.

Your prayers are not nothing.

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 has begun offering pilgrimage tours to sites where The Faithful Traveler has travelled.

The Martlet in the Lotus Room

E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros is a strange and improbable book, the kind of book one expects to find (but cannot expect to find) tucked away on a shelf in the basement of a used bookstore somewhere. It occupies a strange place between the antique legends from which it draws inspiration and the modern fantasy novels to which it is inevitably seen as a kind of precursor. Like David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus, which preceded it by two years, Ouroboros begins with a journey to another planet, but there its twentieth-century credentials end. Lindsay may have been more forward-thinking in employing a spaceship for this voyage; but Eddison, perhaps perceiving the vanity and superfluity of pretending to any sort of scientific accuracy, takes his apparent protagonist to the planet Mercury by hippogriff, only to promptly abandon him after establishing that he will be, after all, only an unseen observer to the events that follow his arrival. Like Middle-Earth, this is not another planet, but an imaginary time. What kind of time this is will soon be apparent.

The Dover reprint quotes Tolkien on the cover and LeGuin, Lewis, and James Stephens on the back, so you know what you’re getting into. And why not? It’s easy to see in Eddison’s Mercury a possible inspiration for the Lord of the Rings, the Space Trilogy, and Earthsea. It is an evocative work, an evocative world. Nothing would be gained by trying to summarize the plot; the magic of Ouroboros is in its sights and sounds. The names of the characters read like a litany from Oz: Goldry Bluszco, La Fireez, Brandoch Daha, the Red Foliot, but they talk like knights of the Round Table and inhabit a veritable Scottish lexicon of glens and heughs and nesses from which they wage war against their equally sonorous enemies. Ouroboros has none of the philosophical pretensions that characterize A Voyage to Arcturus, but there is philosophy here, and much more: reflections on loyalty and betrayal and heroism, a discourse on the virtues of living among mountains, intimations of privileged insight into the titles of French baroque keyboard compositions, and improbable quotations from Shakespeare, Donne, Herrick, and the Greek Anthology. If Thomas Malory had been interested in science fiction, this is the book he might have written. If the Vikings had developed space travel and established an extraterrestrial society based on incessant medieval warfare and dark magic, maybe it wouldn’t be fiction.

Occasional Inkling though he was, maybe it’s not fair to retroactively include Eddison with Tolkien and Lewis, whose positive or negative influences are now so unavoidable in the realms of fantasy. But the comparison may be instructive. Ouroboros is neither an imitation of Middle-Earth nor a bitter reaction to the Christian imagination of Narnia, but it is suffused with nostalgia for another world: the world of the Greek myths and Norse sagas. Tolkien and Lewis, through their very love of mythology, saw a way forward, a way beyond the pagan myths; their beauty, they believed, was caught up and even redeemed by the true myth of Christianity. Eddison’s Ouroboros is as the title suggests: a closed world, an endless loop. Mercury has no redeemer, no eucatastrophe, and does not look for one. It is a world of desire without final fulfillment, with no promise of attaining the ultimate joy to which Tolkien and Lewis point us, the joy that is glimpsed and hinted at in every true fantasy and fairy-story. But this can be felt as a loss even if it is not understood as one. There is honesty here, and nobility, and a gleam of transcendence, for to feel the loss is to be open to the signs of hope. Like the virtuous pagans of old, Eddison still believes in beauty, and revels in its reality. Ouroboros is not a way out of fantasy, butas the Dover reprint reminds usit is still a way in.

 

 

“People magazine is a Bible without the Book of Job.”

The above quote is from Eve Tushnet’s review of Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments, released just last month. I haven’t yet read it, but it seems that A&E is a freewheeling satire that, like much of Waugh’s early work, affirms the truth of human dignity by the via negativa. By contrast, Beha’s debut, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, is a no-holds-barred Serious Novel. Beha, a cradle Catholic* who later left the Church, is on record as saying that “faith became much more interesting to me once I didn’t have it,” and that Sophie Wilder is an attempt to provide a sympathetic portrait of a believer through the eyes of one who seeks to understand that belief from the outside. It seems that D. Z. Myers at Books and Culture has picked up on this and is declaring Beha as a Catholic novelist “with a literary project far more profound [than proselytism]—to display religion as inextricably woven into human life, or what the great Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would have described as its ‘inscape.’” Do read the whole thing here. It’s not too much to say that Sophie Wilder had a profound effect on me; I’m still wrestling with whether it is that rare thing, a hagiography in literary fiction, or a startling inversion of the same. 

* Updated: an earlier version read that Beha was a convert, but this was incorrect. My apologies.

Hope For The Biblical Picture

noah

Having settled in my not-entirely-un-pew-ish seat, stolen various unhealthy morsels from my friend’s platter of popcorny goodness, tried to force the 3D-glasses to stick to my face, slouched myself to optimum comfort and mutually agonized over whether the film would be in Romanian with English subtitles or English with Romanian subtitles (don’t ask), the lights went down and verses from Genesis came up, buffed by dramatic percussion and violins.

Noah is a bizarre movie” reads the opening line of almost every review* you can find on the damn thing and you can’t really blame them. Genuine spiritual angst lies underneath the big-budget special effects: you have unresolved monologues on the nature of justice and mercy, armies of angry neighbours, golem-ish stone angels (sorry, can’t help the reference), a porous border between the sacrificers and sacrificed, wise old men, messages from God that confuse even His own prophet – oh, and sin. That awkward, uncomfortable, dirty-dirty word. In short, this is Darren Aronofsky being given the reins of a Hollywood blockbuster and the multi-million dollar budget that goes right along with it. Spoiler: almost everyone on the planet dies. Take that, Michael Bay**.

Some background could be pertinent.

Aronofsky, like most hefty products of our gradually post-christian culture, is God-haunted.*** His repertoire wouldn’t necessarily go over well when discussed over a church fundraiser but that’s part of what makes the whole thing so compelling. Take Pi, his first film, which is completely obsessed with the connection between God, mathematics and deterministic patterns (expressed via a paranoid man’s journey of escape from both wall-street toughs and a Kabbalah-lusty orthodox Jewish community (shot in glorious black and white)). Then there was the nightmare that is Requiem for a Dream with its dark, incessantly bleak fall into the intensely personal circles of hell belonging to a cadre of addicts.

2007′s The Fountain returned to the search for God and starred Hugh Jackman as a man whose search for a cure to his wife’s cancer just barely conceals an obsessive quest to cure death once and for all. In the film, Jackman also happens to be a 15th-Century conquistador. And maybe a spaceman hurtling towards a dying star in a bubble with the Tree of Life (which may or may not also be his wife).

Yup. I love it to pieces.

Yup. I love it to pieces.

His later, more popular works focused on the sacrifices of art – 2008′s The Wrestler and 2010′s Black Swan both circled around two performers (one on the rise, the other at the end of his rope) and their mutual self-destruction as they try to get at whatever truth, goodness or beauty lies on the other side of uncompromising commitment to art. These are deranged explorations of obsession, repressed sexuality, drug escapism and creative neurosis. And this is the man who returns, in the end, to the Bible for inspiration. Needless to say, there will be no hint of “Precious Moments” in this incarnation of the patriarch.

But this, I argue, is precisely what we need – we’ve become so used to expressing the stories of scripture in ways that pare them down and make them about as compelling/fierce as a colourful circus of tame lions. What keeps me out of most Christian bookstores are the shelves upon shelves selling ceramic statuettes of cute angels, cute apostles, cute parishioners and even cute trinities. We’ve allowed the Bible to pass into pop-kitch.

I don't want to know where this water came from.

I don’t even want to know where this water came from.

It’s easy to think of the rainbows and returning ravens and pairs of animals, but Aronofsky reminds us of the screams of the drowning, the uncertainty in the face of painful mission, the drunkenness (and resulting butt cheeks) of Noah, the range of innocence among the condemned. And again, the sin – the film was originally written as a French graphic novel titled “Noah: For the Cruelty of Man.” Violence and madness and sex and betrayal and divine wrath. These inescapable parts of our spiritual heritage.

Given some of the intense subject matter in the film I was pretty surprised at the positive response from most religious groups, both Jewish and Christian – it’s a sign that we’re moving into a place as a culture (and Christian subculture) that’s getting over the need for and constant falling-back-on black-and-white artistic metaphors of the spiritual battle.

Here's looking at you, Frodo.

Here’s looking at you, Frodo.

But it’s also a huge opportunity for connection – I mean, how are we supposed to relate to the non-orthodoxly God-haunted? What kinds of conversation can we expect ourselves to start wading through?

This is a big deal. While there’s never been a dearth of spiritually-inclined, challenging film out there (The Seventh Seal being a fantastic example), once Charleton Heston put down his tablets there weren’t a whole lot of mainstream movies that’ve had the guts to start asking big questions of the Christian tradition.

Except this one.

Except that one.

It’s pretty interesting, though, to contrast these two films – actually, what happens when Noah goes up against The Passion in the ring? If we start asking the question, “which film is better?” or “which one is more culturally important?” we can start getting into some pretty deep, murky waters. Just how different are these two works of art?

In a word: very.

In thirteen more words: it’s basically the same difference between “How Great Thou Art” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” One is a piece of worship and/or devotion while the other seeks to address, chronicle and ultimately validate humanity’s mess of a search for God in the midst of a batshit, shattered world. We can shout until the cows come home about which one is “better” and completely miss out on the fact that each film has an entirely different, and essential, mission.****

The Passion is an earnest, straightforward exploration of the salvific mission of Christ, told with a barely-held-back fire that occasionally breaks through the elegant cinematography (Satan writhing in hell, anyone?). It’s purpose: to praise God and convict us all of both His mercy and the price thereof.

But what about Noah? What’s this flick trying to do?

I remember us walking out of that Romanian picture house, wondering what exactly we’d just seen or what kind of ironic remark would put everything back into place but we didn’t have anything. The fierce earnestness took everybody aback and no one quite knew how to react. What does this story have to do with us, now? What does it mean when a God says He loves but destroys? When He saves one family but leaves a girl stuck in a bear trap to be trampled to pulp by marauders? When His messenger begins to think the completion of God’s will requires doing something gut-wrenchingly, proto-Abrahamically horrible? When he is prepared to do such a horrible thing? When his weak, agonizing inability to do it was God’s plan all along? When by saving even just one portion of the human race, the cycle of sin sets right back on it’s track? The same pain, the same cruelty, over and over again. Until Christ. And even afterwards.

The Passion strives to be a artistic approximation of the God-Man’s last hours. Noah broaches the human paradoxes of faith more boldly, more courageously and, Entish-angels notwithstanding, more realistically than perhaps any biblical film we’ve yet come across. Even The Passion never touched the pain of our many confusions in the face of God’s wider plan, our lack of immediate consolation.

I feel sorry for the poor marketing agent at Paramount who had to deal with this conundrum – I mean, how do you sell something like this? As a Heston-grade biblical epic? A blockbuster disaster movie? An antihero-wielding bit of revisionist spiritual fuzz? A 2+ hour long commercial for Green Peace and/or WWOOF? Oprah’s next Big Thing?

Among these, it also turned out to be a quiet blockbuster – easily earning back the hundreds of millions of budget cash (here in Mother Russia it was the 10th highest grossing film of all time) while not really making much of a buzz on the blogosphere or with the Greater Cultural Arbitors.***** Why, if it made that much money, is nobody talking about it?

Because, as mentioned above, it’s a bit of an oddball – a pop-yet-morally-earnest slice of spiritual turmoil without the constant, safe reassurance of the Almighty’s presence. Or, if not His presence, then at least confusion over the exact nature of what His goodness and/or mercy requires. It’s a film that somehow tries to span both the providence and punishment of the Am that Is with the casts of Gladiator, Harry Potter and Requiem for a Dream. The average moviegoing mind is certainly forgiven if things just don’t seem to add up.

But, all the flaws of the film aside (and there are many, gosh), maybe there’s part of us that responds to someone crazy enough to engage with some of the questions we might not feel like airing either in the church or in the office. How does one reconcile genuine faith to genuine doubt? Why is God there and then seemingly not? Why are His words so hard to interpret? Are we getting this wrong somehow? It straddles our deep, powerful religious tradition while being fully able to keep close the scandalously legitimate questions of the postmodern age.

Maybe, in the end, the reason why Noah is so important is that it’s messy. Here is a Noah who’s confronted with the fact that he thinks he must do something terrible in order to fulfill God’s plan but can’t go through with it. In his mind that’s a weakness – a lapse of faith, strength and drive. But in the end it proves to be the right thing and you can see in his eyes that he can’t make any of it fit together. His family is broken just as it begins its mission to bring life back to the world. He somehow feels abused and grateful. No one can answer for the girl left in the bear trap.

The film’s not afraid to leave the pieces where they lie, to acknowledge that, sometimes, we can’t just make things add up. In the midst of a religious sub-culture that sometimes places too much of a value on having an answer to everything, we’re all left with a moment to quake in the mystery of I Am. We’re not pressured to have the easy-bake response or expected to breeze over terribly complicated questions. We’re left with mystery. The mystery is left with us. My friends and I walked into the Romanian night not knowing what to say. And a rainbow stretches to cover every possible angle of sky.

*

*This one was Matt Zoller on behalf of rogerebert.com – a bit of a minor tragedy as I’m convinced that the recently-deceased Ebert was one of the few giants of modern criticism that could have really appreciated what Aronofsky was going for here.

**And George R.R. Martin

***I stole that term from somewhere but I can’t for the life of me recall where. It’s, like, my pick for word of the month.

****I don’t know if it’s the fact that North Americans in particular (sorry to my European compatriots) have just gotten comfortable with searching for the better/best thing (noble in its own right, awful when everything becomes a competition with space for only the one winner), but sometimes it leaves our particular set of cultural lenses less likely to admit the fact that sometimes two things can be act as compliments rather than UFC partners.

***** New Yorker, I’m looking at you.

 

Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.