Taking the Word Into Our Flesh

2014-10-15 09.48.06A few months ago, I happened across this article, which discusses how great writers of the past learned their craft by hand-copying lengthy passages from other great writers. The idea coincided with some other reading I’ve done lately about how very physical our mental processes really are, and I decided the method was a definite must-try. But whose work should I copy? Whose words did I love enough to, in a sense, inscribe them on my brain?

I spent some time with the question, returning to it off and on for weeks, but as I thought back to all the wonderful books I have read that shaped not only my writing style but my world view, suddenly all I could see was their flaws. On and on, I considered and dismissed, until finally it hit me. There was only one Author I loved enough to imitate.

So I got out my Bible.

It took a quarter of a second or so to realize what I was proposing was no writing exercise; it was prayer. Half a second after that, I realized the idea could not possibly be new. In fact, it is so not-new, it’s even mentioned in the article. I was just too dense to pick up on it the first time through.

For a few months now, I have sat down almost every night with my Bible, my journal, and my pen, but the words in my journal are never my own. I think about what to pray for, and then I spend a few minutes flipping pages (not usually at random, but sometimes) until I find words that seem to “fit.” Sometimes I choose scriptures that speak directly to my intention, but not always. Sometimes I choose a passage I do not understand; sometimes I choose one that is well-beloved. It’s often no more than two or three verses, though occasionally I choose an entire canticle or parable. Whatever it is, I simply copy it several times until… until. There is no formula, no quota, no limit. It’s similar to lectio divina, only with a pen, and I find that the pen helps me keep my focus. I cannot lose my place when the words are there, in black and white, to mark it.

As the weeks progressed, I began to notice some strange things about this practice. The first is that I stuck with it. The discipline of private prayer has eluded me for most of my life because mine is not the kind of mind that takes kindly to things like repetition and silence. I need sound. I need light, which means I need to keep my eyes open. I need activity, and copying scripture provides all of these. It is a joy that makes me echo the words of St. Therèse:

…I take up Holy Scripture. Then all seems luminous to me; a single word uncovers for my soul infinite horizons; perfection seems simple; I see that it is enough to recognize one’s nothingness and to abandon oneself, like a child, into God’s arms.

Of course, it is a sign of my own spiritual immaturity that I should find the joy of prayer to be strange. However, I noticed something far stranger, a trend in the scripture passages I chose to copy–or rather, the ones I chose not to copy–that helped me understand what God is truly doing in my life, and it was this: I do not typically write the Psalms. This puzzled me to no end because the Psalms are the prayer book of the Church, the javelins of our holy arsenal, and when I began, I assumed this was the book where I would spend most of my time. Yet, night after night, I would sit down, open my Bible to see “The Lord is my shepherd” or “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord”… and I would turn the page. When I finally realized why, I knew I had to share the insight, for it is not mine to keep. It is the inheritance of all Christian people.

The reason I do not tend to write the Psalms is that many of them have already become not just part of my consciousness, but part of my body. I have been a cantor at Mass for fifteen years, and in that time, my relationship with the Psalms has become both intellectual and spiritual, but it is also physical. I have shaped them with breath and lips and tongue, felt their vibrations as they resonate through my bones, even choked upon them into a microphone. The Psalms have already become part of me. I do not mean they have nothing left to teach me (what hubris would that be!), only that a connection exists which I do not have with other books. I do not always live the message of the Psalms I have sung any more than I always live the glory of the Eucharist I have tasted, drunk, and chewed. But if we truly believe that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us–if we believe that, in the Eucharist, we become what we receive–then we also believe that our flesh is called to become the Word. Through my pen, God is shaping His words with my body, and my body with His Word, just as He has done through my voice for so long.

“In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”[i] There is no one right way to encounter the scriptures, and I certainly do not mean to present my own way as a standard. But however we encounter God’s Word, we must do it with our whole selves. Let us read it with our eyes and ponder it with our intellect, but do not let it end there. Let us listen to it when it is proclaimed, and then proclaim it. Let us sing it; let us taste and chew it. Let us smell it, whether in bread and wine or ink and paper. Let us touch the pages upon which it is inscribed, and then inscribe our own. God grant that we may never relegate the scriptures to the mind as if they were they were made of ordinary words, but rather take them into our flesh to dwell: “When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart.”[ii]


[i] Ephesians 6:16-17

[ii] Jeremiah 6:16

Fatima: Altar of the World

XQ1A2164Today, we left Fatima after having spent two and a half days there filming for our next production, The Faithful Traveler in Portugal. We arrived on Wednesday evening after three days in Lisbon, and it rained pretty much every day since. Today, after finally getting some sun and filming at Aljustrel and Valinhos, we left to film at the Monastery at Batalha, with two nights in Tomar.

Fatima has always held a special place in my heart. As a child, I loved hearing the stories of the little pastorinhos, the three shepherd children—Lucia dos Santos and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto—to whom the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in 1917, here at Fatima.

XQ1A2157This is my first time ever in this amazing place, and to be quite honest, I still have to pinch myself to believe I’ve been there.

Fatima calls itself the “Altar of the World”, and I really believe that it is true. Here, Masses, Confessions, prayers and petitions go on for hours, seemingly nonstop. This often happens despite the hot sun or some rainy and windy weather, like we’ve encountered. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. For me, when I’m standing in the middle of the Cova da Iria in October, it had better be raining so I can feel a teeny bit of what the people experienced on October 13, 1917, when the sun danced in the sky on that miraculous day of Our Lady’s last appearance at the Cova.

Saturday night, I attended the candlelight procession, which is preceded by the praying of the Rosary in what seemed to be about 10 different languages. Afterward, I stayed for Mass, which started at around 10:00 pm and lasted until around 12:30 midnight. I had missed Mass earlier that day because I was filming, and I didn’t want to not go to Mass on a Sunday in Fatima! So I braved the cold and ignored my exhaustion. “When will I ever be in Fatima again?” I thought. “When will I ever get the chance to attend Mass at Fatima at night?”


It rained most of the evening, and I had brought my camera with me to film some of the procession, so my rain slicker went on top of the camera to protect it from the rain. Earlier that day, the zipper on my jacket stopped working and I had to break it to get the jacket off, so I couldn’t zip up my jacket. Suffice it to say, I was very cold and very wet and very tired. I was fine staying until the end of a very long Mass. It occurred to me toward the end—no one seemed the least bit perturbed about how long Mass was lasting. The priests didn’t seem to be rushing; they just took their time, praying the prayers, singing the songs, giving God what He deserves. And the attendees were just taking it all in. Many were even kneeling on the hard, very wet, ground. People were sharing umbrellas and being really loving to one another. All of this, in the middle of the night, outside, in the rain, in the cold.


I’ll be honest, it both impressed me and depressed me. I want Mass to be celebrated with such reverence everywhere, instead of it being rushed—gotta get home for football!—and dismissed as an imposition on our busy schedules. I want people at home to feel God’s presence at Mass so much so that they can’t keep from crying when the bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.


I am so very blessed to be here, where such an important message went out to the world, and from whence it continues to go out like rays of light from the candles of all of the processions that have ever taken place here.




AND pray some more. Don’t ever stop praying. Ever.

Is the world looking scary? Pray.

Are you worried about the Synod? Pray.

Worried about Ebola? Pray.

Christians in the Middle East? Pray.

Lost your keys? PRAY.

Pray for everything and anything. Pray at all times. Carry a rosary. Talk to your Guardian Angel. Talk to God. Talk to His Blessed Mother.

Don’t stop praying.

What else is so important?

(This might sound a tad preachy. Let me just say that I often write my blogs to remind myself of all the things I know to be true–trust in God, be patient, pray at all times. I forget these things, too, as I get caught up in the world, and I need reminding all the time. So please don’t think I’m preaching at you. I just figure you might need reminding, too.)


Fatima is such an amazing place of peace and love, I am spectacularly jealous of the people who live here, or who live nearby. I’ll admit it! It’s a holy jealousy. I met some awesome pilgrims—Julie and her parents Dominique and Tony—who came from Belgium, which is about 2 hours away by plane. They’ve been here three times this year alone! How amazing is that?!


Then I remember—I have holy places near me, too. The Miraculous Medal Shrine is all of 10 minutes from my house, thanks be to God, and Philadelphia has four other amazing shrines. What shrines and holy places are near you?

And let’s not forget that Jesus is in our local church every minute of every day, waiting for us to come by and say hi.


I would like to use this post, however, to encourage you all to consider coming to Fatima sometime soon. In 2017, they will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the apparitions at Fatima, back in 1917! How awesome is that?! And I’m sure everyone here is gearing up for the festivities. Start planning your own trip!

We’ve been staying at the Hotel Cruz Alta, one of the hotels in the Fatima Hotels group, which is about as close to the Cova as… well, it’s across a little street. We can hear the singing from the Masses all day and we can walk 5 minutes or less to the Basilicas. The buffets are awesome, the people are SO NICE, and the beds are cozy. What more could a pilgrim want?!


I’d also like to ask that you spread the word and tell people to pray to Blessed Jacinta and Francisco for miracles! They’re ONE AWAY from being canonized! Wouldn’t a canonization and a Papal visit in 2017 just be icing on the cake of everything here? Wow, that would be awesome.


There is so much to say about Fatima, I could talk about it forever, and I’m sure I will be. Just ask me. Or watch The Faithful Traveler in Portugal, when it comes out—hopefully—next Spring. I’ll be asking Blessed Jacinta and Francisco and Sister Lucia for their prayers for that, too. And Our Blessed Mother, of course.


The George W. Hunt Prize

At the Washington Post today, emerging Catholic writers take note: the George W. Hunt Prize announced today will be offering $25,000 to “the finest literary work of Roman Catholic intelligence and imagination.” The prize is co-sponsored by America magazine and the Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale University. To be eligible, writers must be working in the English language and be under 45 years of age. There’s no word on the Post article about when submissions will be accepted or how to submit, so watch for an update with details.

How to View Art

Over at the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott has some advice on how to visit an art museum. Or so it seems. It’s good advice, to be sure, both practical and insightful: take time, seek silence, study up, engage memory, accept contradiction.  But one quickly realizes that the art museum here is not just an art museum. It’s also a metaphor for life. These are rules on how to live. That’s the thing about museums: they make us realize that we are in the presence of something great, but also far beyond our understanding, and that our time is limited. How we spend that time makes all the difference.

Attention DC-area readers!

Fans of Dappled Things in the Washington, DC area may like to check out this art exhibition — “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea” — at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It features pieces from the Vatican Museum and Uffizi Gallery, among other collections. From the NMWA website:

Divided into six thematic sections, the exhibition presents images of Mary as a daughter, cousin, and wife; the mother of an infant; a bereaved parent; the protagonist in a rich life story developed through the centuries; a link between heaven and earth; and an active participant in the lives of those who revere her.

Mark your calendars: the exhibit will open Dec. 5, 2014, and run through April 12, 2015. Whether you’re in the area or out, check out the “online exhibition exploring global traditions in Marian imagery, further contextualizing the artworks on view in the galleries” that will be offered on the museum’s website.

Monday Night Links

Deal Hudson talks with Dappled Things Editor in Chief Meredith McCann for Ave Maria radio in this insightful interview for his show Church and Culture.

The great books are for everyone! The Economist thinks that business leaders should ditch the traditional outdoors leadership courses and replace them with philosophy. Instead of “grappling with nature, business leaders [should] grapple with big ideas.”

David Anthony Harman, Dappled Things‘ art advisor, is also the man behind Native Maps, a company that makes hand-printed, research-driven neighborhood maps. They’ve now been named as finalists for the West Elm LOCAL Grant and are trolling for votes. If you want to support a DT team member and artist, do check them out and consider voting for them here (voting closes October 14).

Ever wondered what it’s like to “gird your loins for battle”? Wonder no more.


David Anthony Harman, hand-printing “native maps.”

Nominations Buzz!


Being far too humble to mention it herself, one of our very own associate editors here at Dappled Things was recently shortlisted for the HarperCollins Canada/UBC Best New Fiction Prize – congratulations, Natalie Morrill!


UBC (or, the University of British Columbia) is one of Canada’s best universities (often ranked in the 30’s in terms of the world’s top) and has a highly prestigious MFA program from which Natalie graduated recentlyish. Anyways, HarperCollins apparently has a habit of culling the top thesis projects from their graduating students and throwing them in a pot from which they draw a handful (three this year) that are in the running for insta-publication and New-Fiction glory. Or something like that.

Anyways, Natalie’s manuscript, entitled At the Top of the Wall, Alight, made the cut – and they’ll be making the decision about the winner at the end of the month. You can find the press release for the shortlist here.

Disclaimer: they totally misquoted the press release. It should say “AT THE TOP OF THE WALL, ALIGHT, by Sudbury author Natalie Morrill, is a sweeping epic of the Second World War, following the life of a Viennese Jew, his family and the close friend who aided them despite his position in the Nazi party.”

Instead it reads: “At the Top of the Wall, Alight by Sudbury author Natalie Morrill follows the life of a Viennese Jew, who is a member of the Nazi party during the Second World War.”

Note to aspiring writers: rein in your press releases. Otherwise your main characters may surprisingly find themselves a Nazi.

Congrats, Natalie, and good luck!


Degrees of Cool Part II (or, post-Christian)

Quick recap: we were just talking (in Part I) about some recent works of art that deal with the complexities of faith in ways that were honest AND commercially/critically successful, which begs the question: what the heck? There can be a bit of an expectation among Christian artists to not be taken seriously because of untrendy beliefs in things like, you know, absolute truth and all that. I know I’ve met quite a few writers who expect major backlash to the themes in their work – a backlash that, though sometimes exaggerated, still sometimes seems very, very real.

Then, on a generous tangent, the topic turned to nature and how pop culture opinions about it changed over the past three hundred years: until industrialization, nature was widely seen as a force to wage war against rather than the soft, gentle, rejuvenating force of spiritual revival that the Romantics later painted it to be. What was the change? People, because of mass urbanization, stopped needing to fight nature to survive – and so could start appreciating it for what it had to offer their newly urban selves.

Same thing with cultural relationships: Native populations in North America were painted as savages until they were conquered – only afterwards could they be perceived by the White-European-descended culture as misunderstood recipients of undeserved tragedy.*

And looking back at war propaganda will provide lots of other examples of demonizing the folks who are seen as the threats de jour.


Remember this guy?

An equally ridiculous example is the campy Catholic monarch who plays foil to England’s queen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. In everything from the maliciously chanting monks to his reluctance to step fully from the shadows, King Philip is presented as little more than a goblin against which Cate Blanchett will say something awesome while basking in a meticulously engineered morning glow. I’m not even joking – you can pretty much all but hear him croaking “gollum, gollum” in the background. Not that Catholics are immune to this kind of simplifying criticism.

Because we're not.

Because we’re not.

When cultures and worldviews are in conflict it’s pretty easy for “debate” to amount to a round of “let’s see who can yell the loudest [with funny memes!],” and for a while in the mid-twentieth century there was some pretty hefty anti-Christian sentiment in the pop-culture and intellectual spheres. I don’t want to say there were no influential voices of faith (there were definitely the Waughs and O’Connors among plenty of others), but the fabric of cultural modernism was kinda set against Christianity in a couple of ways, for a few different reasons.

The modernists, to simplify, were finding the older Victorian and Georgian ways of life too stuffy, petty and ultimately restrictive for the full expression of the breadth and soul of human dignity, and so were searching for another way to live. Enter institutional experimentation (in lifestyle, literature, sexuality, whatevs). One of the problems of the time was that Christianity was sometimes overwhelmingly tied up in the public consciousness (of the English-speaking world, anyways) with notions of cleanliness and respectability rather than the earthy, dirty work of redemption; this “respectable” Christianity wasn’t much more than a hollow shell, a culture dressing up its manners and pretensions in a spiritual tuxedo in order to gain a bit of extra legitimacy. The moderns saw clearly enough to call out the bluff. But not far enough to realize Christianity was the baby thrown out with the bathwater.

A personal suspicion of mine is that each major cultural movement, nearing the end of its shelf-life, eventually ends up mass-producing parodies of their trademark rebellion – leading everyone else to quickly get annoyed with them and paving way for the Next Big Thing. Chesterton constantly complained about the inconsistent groups of would-be anarchists who didn’t seem to have either the conviction or courage of the bolder revolutionaries and anti-monarchists of the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

While real anarchism was always felt a genuine threat, Chesterton found the guys still hanging around in his day, threatening dynamite and all, to be impostors of the original, dangerous challenge to civilization (or something). But then-popular ideas of revolution were watered-down, mass-marketed and picked up by folks genuinely looking for something to fight for, and so were maybe more interested in the fight than in the cause behind it. Cue Chestertonian eye-rolling. But the ideological lovechildren of the pre-and-inter-war moderns would have to wait until the marches of the sixties to fully bloom in this sense.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m under the impression that there were a lot of core groups in the hippie/flower-child movements who were genuinely convicted about peace, love and sexual expression as a means of achieving freedom and dignity and such. But I’m also pretty sure there were lots of folks who jumped on the wagon cause it felt good, provided an easy feeling of cultural righteousness and got them on TV. Cue the quick decline of hippies from force-to-be-reckoned-with to day-time sitcom parodies.

“Whoa….you know…man?”

Cue postmodernism. After the moderns were done fighting/tearing down the old systems so the new, truer morality (not that they’d use the word) could take root, their children quickly realized no new order was forthcoming. Older systems of making sense of the world seemed outdated, refuted and irrelevant, making the search for meaning itself become suspect. Enter Pynchon, Delilo and Vonnegut with their constant (and often painfully humanizing) struggles against the seeming meaninglessness of the world at large. Or, less intensely, enter punk with its global-scale sense of scepticism (ie, flipping the bird) towards any kind of meaning in hand-me-down worldviews. Or, thirty to forty years after the heyday of literary postmodernism in the 70’s/80’s, enter the mass-produced bearers of uncritical irony, detachment and cultural skepticism: hipsterdom.**


Postmoderns, meet your destiny.

So here we are at the tail end of a number of massive, twentieth-century cultural movements trying to break free from a stuffy, Victorian set of manners perceived to be “Christian” in nature. While the conflict was going on, Christians were seen as the epitome of uncool. But now, as modernism is declawed by postmodernism, which is in turn deflated by irony-for-irony’s-sake (not to mention our persistent habit of finding meaning in situations anyway), we might be far enough removed from the image of the “evil authoritarian Churchman(/marm)” that people may kinda-sorta be able to start appreciating the nuances/subtleties of the struggle of faith. It’s not as threatening, and therefore palatable.*****

One one hand, we can interpret this as confirmation that we are pretty much living in a Post-Christian world where the influence of Christendom is a distant memory of the past. We can lament the lack of Christian influence in public affairs, government, the arts and popular media. We can groan about having to compete for attention along with all the other paradigms in the intellectual marketplace.

Or we can acknowledge that there’s a great moment of opportunity here – less and less people are growing up with the knee-jerk anti-Christian tendencies common to Christian cultures (the most powerful anti-Catholic ballads in the Anglosphere, for example, come from Ireland), and so people across the board (Christian and otherwise) are able to look at each other from the cultural divide not as entrenched soldiers, but as mutual inhabitants of a strange world who, maybe, have something to teach each other.

Maybe Christian artists have the duty now of creating art not so much for use in a cultural battlefield as a way of being true to the Good, True and Beautiful as personally experienced in Christ. At the moment, the degree of being cool might well depend on the depth of our self-expression as artists of such. And that means being true to the doubt, loneliness and frustrations of faith as well as to the high-points – as “The Antenna,” “Noah” and “Modern Vampires of the City” (uuuggh) seem to imply, people may be more willing to listen if you speak just as much about the shit as the sunshine.


*Interestingly enough, though, in almost every single popular movie about Aboriginal populations (or their obvious stand-ins), they are almost always saved by a white man.

**When I decided on this title I totally promised myself that the essay would have nothing to do with hipsters***

***That was a total lie****

****After finishing, I found out someone already beat me to the punch and came to the same conclusions in a fantastic 2009 article called “The Death of the Hipster

*****There are two ways this can go, though – non-threatening doesn’t just have to be interpreted as “humbled,” but “compromised” too. There is no justification for substituting the visceral experience of faith for something watered down, just for the sake of being “non-threatening.” That was the problem with Victorian pseudo-religion – which was, in the first place, part of the reason why the moderns rebelled****** at all. Who really wants to set off the whole cycle again?

******And, really, wouldn’t you? It’s good to remember that things started with a whole heck of a lotta good intentions that, if not honoured, will come back to bite us all in the collective ass.


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.

Source, Summit, Sempiterna

“You never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name.”

This line from Eucharistic Prayer III leveled me just the other day at mass–so much so that I (perhaps inappropriately) leaned over to my 6-year old son and whispered, “did you just hear that? Imagine . . . every moment of every day there’s a mass going on somewhere. How awesome is that!?” It happened to be his feast day (feast of the archangels). I couldn’t help but look in awe at the ceiling of our University chapel, painted with seraphim and cherubim, and ringed with the communion of saints. The eternal praise of God on their lips. It stunned me to think that this liturgy at once stops, reverses, and accelerates time in its very performance. The moment of elevation makes present the Lord’s infant body raised by Mary from the manger for the adoring shepherds’ feasting eyes, the Lord’s paschal body raised by his own hands at the last supper, the Lord’s battered body raised by the Romans on the cross, the Lord’s lifeless body raised by the power of the Spirit from the tomb, the Lord’s blessed body raised to heaven 40 days later, the Lord’s mystical body the Church raised from the blood of the martyrs and raised from the graves on the last day. The strange realization hit me that, my wife, children, mother-in-law, and all the others cobbled together at this mystery and in this space praise the Trinity with all other faithful on earth now just as truly as we do with John who worshiped through the revelation given on Patmos, or even with the prophet Isaiah, who heard the sanctus sanctus sanctus with his own ears and tasted the burning, cleansing presence of the Lord God of Hosts on his lips! Yes, this moment, this host elevated unites me to all worship in spirit and truth that has come before, but even stranger is the thought that I am somehow present to all the masses yet to come.

In pondering how this might be so, a short story by Evelyn Waugh flashed into my mind. Waugh’s “Out of Depth” masterfully illustrates the constancy yet transcendence of the liturgy. The liturgy as sticking-point is increasingly necessary amidst a throwaway culture, facebook feeds a speedreader can’t keep up with, memes that die in a day, and videos that go viral and are forgotten in five minutes (#unmemorable). Waugh tells the tale of Rip, a wealthy, well-connected, and shallow Englishman who finds himself, drunk, dazed, and (at the hands of a magician) deported from his own age and into the London of 500 years to come. A mental haze hovers over Rip as he wanders through the formerly familiar alien landscape. Taken prisoner by the white savages, Rip attempts to wake himself from what he believes is a dream. Communication with the natives of this new “Lunnon” proves a near impossibility, despite the linguistic similarities. The African “bosses,” who come and take Rip from the village, bring him to a learned man, whose thick accent baffles the attempt to communicate to Rip by reading Shakespeare. This moment strikes particularly strong chord. The plain language of English does not transcend time; even the seemingly timeless classic of Shakespeare seems of little use to bridge the intellectual, emotional, psychic gap for Rip. Something else, however, will do just that. Rather than paraphrase the moment of insight, let me allow Waugh to speak for himself:

         “And then later–how much later he could not tell–something that was new and yet ageless. The word “Mission” painted on a board; a black man dressed as a Dominican friar . . . and a growing clearness. Rip knew that out of strangeness, there had come into being something familiar; a shape in chaos. Something was being done that Rip knew; something that twenty-five centuries had not altered; of his own childhood which survived the age of the world. In a log-build church at the coast town he was squatting among a native congregation; some of them in cast-off uniforms; the women had shapeless, convent-sewn frocks; all round him dishevelled white men were staring ahead with vague, uncomprehending eyes, to the end of the room where two candles burned. The priest turned towards them his bland, black face.

‘Ite, missa est.’ “

In Waugh’s imagination, even 500 years from now, when African Dominicans will be re-evangelizing the savage British Isles, the one immutable rock that weathers any storm, the one ever-glowing beacon that cuts through the haze of confusion and the vanity of time is the Lord’s sacrifice made once for all–the source, the summit, the sempiterna, the Eucharist.

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.