The Little Oratory

Guest post by Tacy Williams Beck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Helena and the Triumph of the Cross

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

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

St Helena, from the Wedding Church at Cana

St Helena, from the Wedding Church at Cana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Your Holy Cross, You have redeemed the world.

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

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

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

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

Christ in the Garden of GethsemaneHeinrich Hofmann, 1890

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

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

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

That gives me strength. That gives me hope.

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

StPhilipCrucifix

New crucifix at my parish

I LOVE the Cross.

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

Early Christians would pray,

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

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

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

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

–John 3:16-17

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

Beha’s Arts & Entertainments, (re)visited.

In my previous post on Christopher Beha, I was excited to hear that he had a new novel out (Arts & Entertainments) but hadn’t yet read it. Having corrected the omission, I can confirm the novel’s affinity with some of Waugh’s earlier work. A Handful of Dust comes particularly to mind, concerned as both novels are with the pressures that tear down a dream of idyllic family happiness, including marital infidelity (though the infidelity in A&E is mainly fictional for the sake of the camera). Neither novel is entirely satire, since as the New York Times reviewer aptly pointed out, it’s all but impossible to satirize a culture that comes so completely pre-self-satirized as either the Bright Young Things or the Real Housewives. For A Handful of Dust, critic Gene Kellogg* suggests the term “apologue” rather than “satire” — in his use of the term, this is a story in which “the emotions aroused in the reader come not from sympathy for the characters but from assent to the statement made by the action.” This seems a fitting description for A&E as well; we’re meant to view its characters with a certain amount of detachment, not so much to feel deeply for their various absurd plights as to reflect on what the bare possibility of such plights means for our society. Yet sympathy for the characters is far from impossible here, either. Both Beha and Waugh succeed in humanizing a subculture that is often viewed as totally frivolous. The novels’ humor balances their darkness, and their awareness of that darkness keeps any frivolity from spiraling out of control.

More can and must be said, but I’ll leave the big themes to the big guns. The Millions review shouldn’t be missed, nor Beha’s own interview about the novel at Harper’s. Do note Beha’s remarks at the end about religion and realism, which resonate with the recent discussion amongst Elie, Wolfe, and Gioia about faith in fiction.

Attentive readers of the novel will also pick up on Beha’s sly, subtle yet thrilling shout-out to J.F. Powers in Moody’s late monologue, as Moody describes his transition from ex-seminarian to reality TV producer. We’ve already visited that “retreat house in Minnesota run by the Order of St. Clement” where Moody discovered his gift for getting people to reveal their inner lives on film. (The Clementines don’t exist; they were created by Powers for his novel Morte D’Urban, which itself wrestles with questions of appearance vs. reality, the ways in which personal integrity is compromised by striving for image, and to what degree the real self can truly survive its constant friction with the masks we present to others. Major, major intertextuality win here.)

 

* in his The Vital Tradition, which looks at the rise of the Catholic novel in France, England, and America over a period of roughly 200 years.

The Return of the Native

Dudleya pulverulenta, "Liveforever"

Dudleya pulverulenta, “Liveforever”

Sticky Monkey Flower, Fairy Lanterns, Chinese Houses. I’ve seen a few of these California wildflowers in the cool green hills above the Steven’s Creek reservoir. But there are other plants once native to San Jose that I haven’t seen yet: Pearly Everlasting, our native strawberry Fragaria californica, or the Liveforever, a ghostly succulent that likes to hang out on cliff faces.

California is green in the winter and gold in the summer. That always felt like the natural rhythm to me, felt like home. But I’ve learned that it’s a recent, drastic change: the hills used to boast living plants year-round. Only when Spanish cattle brought the seeds of European grasses did the bronze oaks acquire their pretty blond backdrop.

Metaphor of Grass in California

by Charles Martin

The seeds of certain grasses that once grew
Over the graves of those who fell at Troy
Were brought to California in the hooves
Of Spanish cattle. Trodden into the soil,

They liked it well enough to germinate,
Awakening into another scene
Of conquest: blade fell upon flashing blade
Until the native grasses fled the field,

And the native flowers bowed to their dominion.
Small clumps of them fought on as they retreated
Toward isolated ledges of serpentine,
Repellent to their conquerors. . . .
In defeat,
They were like men who see their city taken,
And think of grass–how soon it will conceal
All of the scattered bodies of the slain;
As such men fall, these fell, but silently.

The only thing sadder than the defeat of the native grasses is the defeat of the native peoples, which this poem mourns without ever mentioning it directly, as if so much death is unsayable.  I fear that I may be trivializing it by bringing it up in a post that is basically about gardening, but when we garden with native plants, we are attempting to restore something that has been lost.  I can’t go back in time and undo tragedy, but I do have control over the barren backyard of the house I’m renting.  California is kind to foreign species, as long as you can water them–the long-fallow soil of my backyard has sent up geysers of green in the form of basil and tomatoes–but we all know that water here is running short.  Native plants don’t need to be watered in summer because they’ve survived here for ages without it.  In fact, a lot of these plants will die if you fertilize them and overwater them.  They are ascetics who are ruined by luxury.  For me, the lazy gardener, what could be better?

Low-water gardens, or xeriscapes, are becoming more popular now as Californians realize that, while lawns are nice for muggy Virginia or verdant England, we can’t really afford to dump huge amounts of water on a plant we can’t even eat.  That reservoir I mentioned earlier is turning into a mud puddle.  I see a lot of lavender in yards these days, and New Zealand flax and other plants from Mediterranean climates around the world, but not so many Californian species.  Ceanothus, yes, our western answer to lilac, a gamine in faded blue jeans to its perfumed Southern belle.  And manzanita, which forms blunt, dusty hedges down road medians everywhere.  What about pink-flowering currant, though?  Or California fuschia?  So many choices–and yet, a comforting restriction of choice.  I guess my interest in gardening with these plants follows my love of meter and rhyme in poetry: freedom within rules.  I don’t know where to start when faced with every plant in the nursery, or every word in the dictionary.

And yet, I am not a purist.  As much as I wish I could see the wild California of old, I am also nostalgic for Silicon Valley’s orchard days.  Neat, cultivated rows of apricot and plum and almond, blossoming from hill to hill–a man-made landscape, no question.  And how could I wish our famous vineyards out of existence?

So I’ve planted a Meyer lemon and an apricot in my sunny front yard, and I am scheming to make the backyard a colorful oasis of native plants..  An Island Tree Mallow is already multiplying its fuzzy leaves, and hopefully it will grow as high as the fence.  Island Mountain Mahogany and native currants will fill in the rest of the fence, and the shade of our one large tree will become mysterious with California bush anemone, ferns, and coral bells.  I want the ink-blue flowers and bracing scent of Cleveland sage, the “wiry heathpacks” of California buckwheat, and the rusty, desert sunset pink of yarrow.  I want to see bugs, birds and butterflies feasting on berries and nectar.  I want a garden that couldn’t grow anywhere else. dudleya_beargrass

If Christians Were Like Edwin Edwards

EdwinEdwardsI’ve been driving around town seeing signs that say “Edwards – Congress” and smiling. In spite of myself, I cannot help admiring Edwin Edwards. Not morally or ethically, mind you. The former four-term governor of Louisiana was released from federal prison in 2011 after serving a ten-year sentence for racketeering, conspiracy, and extortion. (What else did we expect from a man who once ran on the slogan, “Vote for the Crook, It’s Important”?) He was eighty-three when he got out, and any sane person would have retired on his more-than-modest means to live out his days in peace, but no. Instead, Fast Eddie immediately married a thirty-two year old, fathered a child, and got his own reality TV show. Now he’s running for congress in my district.

I find myself wondering what the world might be like if we Christians lived the Gospel with the same kind of tireless, unapologetic gumption.

Humans of Tanglewood

We have come here to hear Beethoven. Listening to music has become a private affair in recent years, but there is little that is private here. Blankets and lawn chairs crowd the space beneath the trees, and toddlers run freely through the grass. Teenagers trip awkwardly over reclining older couples, and their embarrassed parents abruptly fold up their seats and disappear. Grandfathers dance slowly and mysteriously across the lawn and settle quietly next to their children’s children, still moving in time with the music. Picnic lunches are in progress. The Ninth Symphony calls us all to universal brotherhood.

Beethoven can make you feel that you’re outside no matter where you are, or make you want to be. It’s not really nature that he’s thinking of, perhaps; it’s some kind of ideal, but then so is this particular corner of the Berkshires. We’re all looking for Elysium, some kind of rose-strewn landscape with a canopy of stars, capitalizing our nouns and wondering if this is what it feels like to be drunk with fire.

It’s Not Medieval

What happened this summer?

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself over the past couple of months as crisis after crisis has broken out around the world, so many coming and in such quick succession that it’s almost impossible to remember everything one is supposed to be keeping up with. We’ve seen the continued atrocities of the Assad regime. The annexation of Crimea. The expansion of ISIS from Syria into Iraq. The Ebola crisis. Boko Haram and the kidnapped girls in Nigeria. The persecuted Christians in Mosul. The Yazidis.  Famine and war in South Sudan. Miriam Ibrahim. Russia’s continued aggression towards Ukraine and Putin’s nuclear rhetoric. Venezuela’s downward spiral. James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Libya. Egypt. The Gaza strip.

All this, and we haven’t even mentioned Afghanistan.

boromir

Through it all, I’ve noticed that the word “medieval” keeps coming up time and again when journalists report on these atrocities. Most often the word is used to describe ISIS, but not exclusively. “Medieval Cruelty in Modern Times” reads a popular article at The Daily Beast. “Liberal interventionists silent on ISIS’s medieval brutality,” reports Hot Air. “Ukraine unrest: No end in sight to ‘medieval’ protests,” says the BBC (this in reference to the protesters’ use of makeshift shields and catapults). Whatever the context, it’s always pretty clear what the word means: brutal, backward, cruel.

This isn’t the place to jump into a history lesson, so I’ll merely point out that catapults date back to at least a thousand years before the Medieval period. Also, as any medievalist will tell you, the terms Dark Age and Medieval period are not synonymous with each other. When we refer to something as “medieval,” we are rarely referring to the real Middle Ages, but rather to a vague popular sense of what we regard as the opposite of modern, slick, and enlightened.

“Medieval” is a very convenient term. What it really means is not us. This little word allows us to explain away the horrors modern man sees when he looks in the mirror. Beheadings, torture, murder, the deliberate targeting of innocents—in the popular imagination, these things are medieval, not modern.

What a perfect encapsulation of modern arrogance. What will it take for us to realize that this is our world? That the hooded thugs that murdered Foley and Sotloff speak with a modern British accent? That Putin’s empire-building is supported by the modern oil trade and funded largely by contemporary Europe? Let’s not blame the medievals for what we’re seeing in the news. These atrocities are the kind of thing we do. It’s not by chance you’re watching them on YouTube.

You’d have thought the 20th century would have been enough for us to know better.

What was the Holocaust and its industrial model of extermination? Modern.

The Gulag and Stalin’s purges? Modern.

Mao and the millions of deaths caused by his “Great Leap Forward”? Even the name sounds modern.

Or how about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and their extermination of around 20% of the Cambodian population? Modern modern modern.

But, of course, those are the bad guys. And they have foreign names. And they’re nazis or commies or something. And that’s not what modern means! Modern means freedom, damn it! And democracy. And the pursuit of happiness.

Better then to forget that we, the good guys, have been the only ones in history who have used atomic weapons—twice. Say what you want about the necessity of deliberately targeting a civilian population in order to avoid the hypothetically larger casualties of a prolonged war. Personally, I find that reasoning disturbingly utilitarian, but I can see its appeal. That makes no difference here. Even if it acquits Truman and America, it is all the more damning to the modern world—it makes modernity the kind of world where the good guys find it necessary to turn civilian populations into radioactive ash.

Sure, Medieval civilization was very far from perfect. But given our own baggage, do we really want to go there? Instead, next time you hear the word “medieval,” I challenge you to think of universities, toll roads, clocks, punctuation (that’s right!), or the printing press—all Medieval inventions. When you visit Europe and are dazzled by the beauty of so many of its cities, think “medieval,” for even when the buildings you are looking at may not have been built in that time (though then again, they may have), it was the medieval period that formed Europe as such. Or how about this: next time you ponder the benefits of democracy, think medieval. Influenced by the Enlightenment writers’ narrative of history, our minds immediately jump back to Athens or republican Rome, but the truth is that we have no historical connection to those systems. Present-day democracies arose out of the Middle Ages, as burghers began gaining the right to autonomous administration from feudal lords who wanted to profit from the tax revenue the trade of such towns could provide. To a significant extent, we have those horrible, backward medievals to thank for the right to vote.

And maybe next time news of an atrocity flashes across your screen—as no doubt sadly it will—we may just consider describing it as modern.

Мультики!*

*pronounced “mooltiki,” meaning “cartoons.”

SOMEBODY rejoice with me

Somebody PLEASE rejoice with me

My roommates recently discovered my ignorance of classic Soviet cartoon shorts (their faces contorting into various expressions of “Whaaaaaa………how can this be?!?!?”) and took to remedying my dire situation with a vengeance. And so began an impromptu film festival of all the glorious childhood gems from ye olde USSR (or, as the locals call it, the CCCP) including my newest acquaintances: Cheburashka, the Hedgehog and…Winnie the Pooh?

That’s right: had Stalin survived yet another decade he would’ve been treated to the many adventures of Pooh-Bear, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl and Rabbit (no Tigger, unfortunately), which, quite possibly, could have melted even that heart of Slavic stone. Alas. But at least we can enjoy them ourselves – though approaching them with an open mind is a must, for this ain’t no Disney:

Винни-Пух (Vinni-Pukh, or, “Winnie-the-Pooh [and the Honey Tree]”
(You’ll have to click the “Subtitles/CC” button to get the excellent English translation)

 

Винни-Пух Идёт в Гости (Vinni-Pukh Idyot v Gosti, or, Winnie-the-Pooh Goes Visiting)
(Subtitles are Automatic)

 

Винни-Пух и День Забор (Vinni-Pukh i Den Zabor, or, “Winnie-the-Pooh’s Busy Day PART ONE”
(Subtitles are Automatic)

 

Винни-Пух и День Забор (Vinni-Pukh i Den Zabor, or, “Winnie-the-Pooh’s Busy Day PART TWO”)
(Subtitles are Automatic)

 

One of the most iconic characters in Russian animation is a little critter named Cheburashka, who stars in his own small series of short films from the 60’s-80’s along with his friend Gena the Crocodile:

Чебурашка и Гена Крокодил (Cheburashka and Gena Crocodile)
(Subtitles need to be activated)

 

Another classic is “Hedgehog in the Fog,” which won a couple of those “Best Animated Short of All Time” prizes worldwide, as well as being a personal favourite of filmmakers such as Michel Gondry and Hayao Miyazaki:

Ёжик в тумане (Yozhik v Tumane, or “Hedgehog in the Fog”)
(Subtitles are Automatic)

And there you are – instant film festival!

Though for the more ambitious, the longer “Аленький Цветочек” (The Scarlet Flower) is absolutely stunning. And so I take my leave with some of the most elegant animation I have ever seen:

Аленький цветочек (Alenkiy Tsvetochek, or “The Scarlet Flower”)
(Subtitles must be activated)

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.

Degrees of Cool Part I (or, “red in tooth and claw”)

Some of my favourite critics from recent years are Roger Ebert and Harold Bloom – not because I’ve always agreed with where they ended up (or how they got there) so much as for their wizardry. Taking any movie or book they could spin out marvellous reflections about the bigger issues of life – regardless of whether it was a footnote to Samuel Johnson’s two-hundred-year-old biography or Spider-Man 2. It’s a big part of why I’ve come to love writing reviews.

It happens pretty often that, as I start writing an essay, my mind drifts to a book I’ve read or a new song that embodies some of the questions/struggles I’m trying to put to paper – then, boom, it’s shanghai’d the entire piece and I have to market it as a review. Writing stuff here has been no exception – but the first few (deep, down) things I’ve posted here, interestingly enough, also ended up followed a pattern that (at first) wasn’t intentional at all.

The first piece was about a wonderful poem called “The Antenna,” which is a beautiful reflection written by an Anglican minister about the human capacity to hear God’s voice – also engaged with is the subsequent interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company (normally known for eschewing genuinely controversial topics in the name of extreme political correctness). Next came Noah, a dark, brooding film about the eponymous patriarch directed by a man more known for art films/psycho-sexual thrillers about ballet dancers than biblical epics. And, finally, Vampire Weekend’s unfortunately-named “Modern Vampires of the City,” which starts with an average trendy-postmodern-vs.-The-Almighty vibe before breaking down into incredibly tender, heartbreaking moments not just of sympathy with God, but of sorrow over His solitude and abandonment by those who claim to love Him.

What’s one thing they all have in common? They explore some of the dicier territory when it comes to faith, doubt and the search for truth.

What else? Each one of them’s been ridiculously successful in their fields. “The Antenna” won the Montreal International Poetry Prize – the biggest cashpot for a single poem in the world. “Noah” made mega-cash at the box office without alienating either mainstream audiences or the faith community. “Modern Vampires of the City” was hailed as the best album of 2013 by a handful of critics and made the top-ten list of other dozens. All of a sudden, it seems, honest discussions of faith aren’t happening in some dark, oppressive Boston alley anymore. They’re even a tad, dare I say it, edgy.

But wait, hold on a sec. When did religion start getting……..cool again? How did that happen?

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Yo.

Humour me for a moment with a tangent. In a recent issue of The Paris Review, the director Werner Herzog (who, in addition to being one of the most important directors of the past forty years, played a bit role in a bizarrely poignant movie portraying a bushplane pilot to a number of nuns who decide to engage in some miraculous, parachuteless skydiving) published some of his notes while directing Fitzcarraldo (I’ve never heard of it either), a movie from the 80’s shot entirely in the jungle. They’re about nature, mostly. It’s a terrifying read:

 

“The voices in the jungle are silent; nothing is stirring, and a languid, immobile anger hovers over everything.”

“A still day, sultry. inactivity piled on inactivity, clouds staring down from the sky, pregnant with rain; fever reigns; insects taking on massive proportions. The jungle is obscene. everything about it is sinful, for which reason the sin does not stand out as sin.”

“Our little monkey was wailing in his cage, and when I approached, he looked and wailed right through me to some distant spot outside where his little heart hoped to find an echo. I let him out, but he went back into his cage, and now he is continuing to wail there.”

“…in this setting, left unfinished and abandoned by God in wrath, the birds do not sing; they shriek in pain, and confused trees tangle with one another like battling titans, from horizon to horizon, in a steaming creation still being formed.”

“Fog-panting and exhausted they stand in this unreal world, in unreal misery—and I, like a stanza in a poem written in an unknown foreign tongue, am shaken to the core.”

 

Continue reading the rest and you’ll only find more descriptions like this – full of a kind of horror that’s pretty much Lovecraftian* in scope and suffocation. Contrast this with any of the Romantic poets from the late 1700’s and you’ll get quite a different impression of the natural world: “Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher” or “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”** Yup – the attitudes are pretty much night and day. Okay, and so what? Why does it matter?

Because people didn’t always feel that way about Mama Nature. Nowadays you don’t need to look very far to see the influence of the Romantics: sensitive freshman walk around with copies of Walden, weekend holidays in the woods are marketed as retreats from the spiritual desert of the city, and a little over half of the people you’ll meet in any decent hostel can probably quote most of Into the Wild.**

If you take a look at books and documents from more than a two hundred years ago, though, you’ll find a second narrative in play: nature as enemy. Read any of the accounts of various settlers and colonialists and there’ll be a plethora of references to nature being the opponent, a source of death/disease/danger, a constant threat to children and new human life – as the force, basically, which had to be fought if survival happened to be on your to-do list. Think Victorian African adventure stories. Think the Wild West. Think Antarctican expeditions.

And so why was there such a big change in the way we could appreciate nature? Because it was tamed.

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The Romantic poets in the English tradition wrote their stuff in response to mass industrialization – read: for one of the first times in history, the majority of the people were leaving their farms and moving to the urban centers. Constant animals didn’t threaten their livelihood (or, in some cases, lives) anymore. People didn’t have to freeze their collective buttocks going to the outhouse. Advances were made in constructing/outfitting rural outposts for the sake of industry. Basically, a lot of people started not having to scrape their living from the land, and so nature ended up abdicating the title of Public Enemy Number One. Factories, rather than forests, dominated the skyline.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the literature in the following years started to suggest the city as the one to be struggled against. The Romantic poets were a big example of this movement, but you don’t need to stop there – just think of the urban dangers in Dickens’ London, for example.

From that point on, nature largely appeared in pop-consciousness as a place of refuge from the corrupting elements of the city (CONCRETE = EVIL, DAISY CHAINS = GOOD), a place of spiritual solace rather than toil and extreme loss. This may seem a natural sentiment for us today but we have to remember that, mere decades before, most people had to scrape their living from an incredibly ungenerous-seeming soil. So why was there such a quick turnaround? Partially, I think, because people ultimately had cozy warm homes to get back to – they could experience the positive elements of the natural world without facing the same consequences their ancestors had to deal with. They could put the great outdoors into a figurative little box and visit it when they needed a bit of refreshment, a kinda break from it all.

Basically, people could appreciate nature when it stopped being such a threat to their daily existence, their status quo. Herzog’s notes shook me because they’re a reminder that the jungle is no Hallmark card, regardless of what Disney’s The Jungle Book or Tarzan would have us believe. “Red in tooth and claw,” Tennyson called it.

Where things start getting sticker is when the same process of cultural rehabilitation starts happening with people. Another example: think of the popular image of the First Nations and Aboriginal peoples in North America – in the past they were cast as villains in stories of White European settlers, as the enemies of progress and the terror of poor, defenseless settlers just trying to get by without getting scalped. Movies like Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves and even Avatar could only be made years after the “threat” had been eradicated.

When a culture is at war with another culture, our ability to assess each other with objectivity, compassion or nuance kinda goes out the window:

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Cold-War-Ads-How-Communism-Works

So where is this all going? Well, I’m wondering if maybe religion is currently able to be tentatively approached by the pop-culture machine because now, as compared to before, it isn’t perceived as such a challenge to the status quo anymore.

Tune in to the upcoming Part II for more shots in the dark of why this is, why it’s significant and what it might for the creation of spiritual art in today’s world.

*

*H.P. Lovecraft built his posthumous fame on stories about massive god-monsters whose tendency to wreak madness and destruction on all universes known and unknown is postponed only by oh-so-temporary bouts of beauty sleep.

**these are both quotes from Wordsworth, but you don’t need to read very far to find some similar sentiments from Coleridge, Blake, Byron or the Shelleys.

***which is a fantasticly well-made film, even if it takes liberties with the true story of its protagonist. But one can only handle the cult of Christopher McCandless for so long before one’s patience runs its course.

 

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.

“How Can They Meet Us Face To Face Till We Have Faces?”

A few months ago, I was boring my friend to tears, telling him how I’d read my children Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader on a six-hour car ride. Saving me from my own encomium, he interrupted with a bold claim: “Narnia is great, but Till We Have Faces is C.S. Lewis’s best work, hands down!” Surely, he couldn’t be serious. Admitting I’d never read it, I promised soon to disprove him. Well, whether providence or the gods, or dumb luck were to blame, on the very next day my habitual stroll past the “discarded/free books” table at my University’s library brought me face-to-face with a ratty old codex, the cover worn beyond legibility and entirely torn from the book’s corpus. This book, literally, refused to be judged by its cover. You’ll have already guessed its title—I soon discovered its identity as C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. Not one to tempt the Lord, I vowed then and there to read it post haste.

Two pages in, I knew I wasn’t in Narnia anymore. Based on a myth found in the Latin novel Metamorphoses, this retelling gives the story of an irascible King’s three daughters: the eldest is a Frump-asaurus Rex; the middle a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model; and the third a beauty so innocent and profound she is taken for a goddess by the townsfolk.C.S. Lewis takes the title of his reworked mythical novel from a question asked by the heroine (or villain?) near the book’s climax. The oldest daughter (Orual), cursed with an irredeemably ugly countenance, having suffered the loss of her sister (Psyche) at the hands of the gods, wishes more than anything to render publicly her charge against the gods. She claims the gods are guilty of stealing the greatest of human loves (namely her own love for Psyche). Still worse, the gods expect belief and obedience while refusing adequate positive evidence for that belief. Orual finally gets her chance in a vision wherein she journeys to a mountain containing the presence of the dead and those who would hear and answer her case against the gods. She blames the gods for not more directly (and sooner) revealing themselves and Psyche’s enchanted castle. Had they done so, Orual would not have lost Psyche to lifelong exilic wanderings. At the moment of her chance before the judgment seat, however, before the dead and the gods, she asks: “how can we meet them face to face till we have faces?” I think it is the central question Lewis’s masterful retelling. In the hopes of sparking some late summer reading and some interesting debate, allow me hazard an answer to Orual’s query.

The question is baffling in part because its terms are opaque. Who are they? What does “faces” mean? On the face of it (I couldn’t resist the pun), “they” are the gods, and “faces” cannot mean simply the anatomical face. It must mean the capacity or means to intentionally project one’s identity. Such a reading makes sense of the various uses of “face” in the text. Being a blog post, this composition excludes my making a complete case. Begging your charity, therefore, I will highlight a couple poignant moments in the effort to inspire your own reading of Lewis’s masterpiece. First, Orual (the eldest, ugly daughter) decides, upon becoming Queen, to wear always her veil. This decision to efface herself amounts to the construction of a new identity. She becomes “the faceless one.” She is the one who sees all faces, all emotions and thoughts born out on them, yet refuses to reveal her own. Her effort to remain faceless behind the veil, however, is betrayed one night when she must attempt to walk through town unrecognized. Her disguise of choice, however, is none other than her own countenance. In leaving the veil behind, she discovers that the blank, expressionless, one-way mirror of her veil had become her true face. Hers was the power to withhold the mystery of her identity; hers was the power to see and not be seen, to behold yet be unbeheld, to know while remaining unknown.

The beauty and irony of this discovery is its corollary—that Orual has been grasping at being everything she so hated about the gods; namely, their unwillingness to reveal freely their “faces.” Their local goddess (Ungit), whom she viscerally hates, is none other than a faceless monolith in a dark temple. Ultimately, she can take on any face her worshippers desire, any angle of her multifaceted surface becomes its own face for the one coming to sprinkle blood on her stoney skin. Furthermore, Orual cannot decide whether her sister Psyche is delusional when claiming she has been wed to “the god of the mountain,” who built her an invisible castle and visits her nightly but commands her never to gaze upon his countenance. Unable to believe this fantasy, Orual compels her sister to steal a glance at her lover by lamplight. As a consequence of this “enlightenment,” Psyche is cast into the darkness of a life of wandering exile. Demanding to see the god’s face, she is cast from the sight of all the living. At the moment of Psyche’s exile, this “god of the mountain” blasts Orual with the full glory of his own “face,” the beauty and brilliance of which burns a blackened imprint on her soul.

With these reflections I’ve barely scratched the surface of Lewis’s grand myth retold. I hope you bring yourself face-to-face with this novel over the next month. Let’s plumb the depths of Lewis’s imagination together!