joy and sadness: a world turned Inside Out

Joy and SadnessI saw Inside Out last night. It is a remarkable work of cinematic art. I don’t have time at the moment to write the review I would like to, but Steven Greydanus has more than ably said many of the things I would want to mention, and some that had not occurred to me. As I began thinking about the movie’s themes this morning, a passage from Henri Nouwen came to mind, which I had written down in my journal some twenty-four years ago.

“I tell you most solemnly, you will be weeping and wailing while the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy. A woman in childbirth suffers, because her time has come; but when she has given birth to the child she forgets the suffering in her joy that a man has been born into the world. So it is with you: you are sad now, but I shall see you again, and your hearts will be full of joy, and that joy no one shall take from you.” (John 16:20-22)

Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our life. It seems that there is no such thing as clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of its limitations. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness.

Joy and sadness are as close to each other as the splendid colored leaves of a New England fall to the soberness of the barren trees. When you touch the hand of a returning friend, you already know that he will have to leave you again. When you are moved by the quiet vastness of a sun-covered ocean, you miss the friend who cannot see the same. Joy and sadness are born at the same time, both arising from such deep places in your heart that you can’t find words to capture your complex emotions. But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to the day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us.

Henri J.M. Nouwen, Out of Solitude, “In Expectation”

A few further thoughts: Toward the end of the movie, there are moments that, while not in the least didactic, are instructive not just for children, but for all of us who share the human condition. Our lives are constantly marked by the reality of being in statu viae — “on the way”… In this life, we are never at home in the sense of a place of final rest. Our lives are shaped continually by hellos and goodbyes of various kinds — with other people, with places, and with places within.

While this is true of all people without exception, we sometimes feel isolated, believing that, while we can celebrate the hellos together, we cannot grieve the losses together (even with those we love and who love us). Yet sadness expressed can be isolation overcome. Paradoxically, grief shared can become sadness transformed and touched by joy, because our greatest need as humans is not to experience unqualified and perpetual joy, but to experience life in communion with others. If we understood this, and lived this, our relationship to the sick, dying, poor and elderly might be transformed. And with those relationships transformed, our world could be turned inside out, in the best possible sense.

The Jeweler’s Shop at Open Window Theatre

This past weekend, Open Window Theatre in Minneapolis began performing The Jeweler’s Shop, one of my favorite plays. It was written by Karol Wojtyla (who later became Pope St. John Paul II).

The Jeweler's Shop - Open Window Theatre

On Sunday, September 28, immediately following the 1:30 pm matinee performance, I joined three others in a panel discussion of the play. I don’t know nearly as much about John Paul II, the theater, or the play as the others on the panel, but on the basis of my sheer enthusiasm for the play, I was invited to participate. Click here for more details.

Here’s a short description of the play, from the official English translation:

Love is “one of the greatest dramas of human existence,” writes Pope John Paul II. In this illuminating three-act play–here in the only English translation authorized by the Vatican–he explores relationships between men and women, the joys–and the pain–of love and marriage. The action unfolds in two settings at once: a street in a small town, outside the local jeweler’s shop (people go to buy their wedding rings there), and the mysterious inner landscape of personal hopes and fears, loves and longings. Each act focuses on a different couple: the first happily planning their wedding, the second long-married and unhappy, the third about to marry but full of doubts. Writing with power and understanding about a love that survives the grave, a love that has withered and died, a love budding out of complexes and insecurities, the Pope addresses such fundamental human concerns as: What does it mean to fall in love? When do we know that a love is real–and can it last? If it dies, how do we go on living–and loving again? There are no easy answers, and there is no happy ending–such is the nature of men and women, and such is the nature of love–but there is hope, if we only acknowledge our need and accept the risks of a deep and lasting commitment. This is a play full of wisdom on a subject of great relevance to all, and it provides a special insight into the thoughts of the man who, like no other, has captured the imagination of people of all faiths throughout the world…. Karol Wojtyla–Pope John Paul II–has long been involved with the theater. As a student of literature, then priest, bishop and archbishop, he acted, directed, wrote dramatic criticism, made a Polish translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and has authored six plays. (source)

The panel discussion lasted about 40 minutes. Here it is in audio format. If a transcript becomes available, I will add that as well.

Tickets for the Open Window Theatre production are available on their website.

the New Evangelization: new in its ardor, new in its expressions, new in its methods

Pope John Paul II said that the New Evangelization is not a new message, but is new in its ardor, new in its expressions, and new in its methods

That was the first thing to come to mind when I viewed this YouTube clip of Sister Cristina Scuccia, a fireball of an Ursuline sister from Sicily, performing on The Voice:

Kathy Schiffer over at Patheos provides the backstory of Sister Cristina. For a transcript of the dialogue between Sister and the judges, click here or turn on the CC button on YouTube to see captions in English.

Notice how her witness awakens unmistakable joy in those who encounter her.

The dialogue that follows the song is a strong interpretive key of the event, I think. There is much to learn from the encounter.

Notice what Sister Cristina says in the exchange that follows her performance (translated from the Italian):

The pope invites us to go out and evangelize, to say that God takes nothing away from us, but rather, gives us even more!! That’s why I’m here!

She may be referencing a homily that Pope Benedict XVI gave at the Inaugural Mass of his papacy in 2005. If so, this sister would have been 16 years old when she heard it. At any rate, clearly she has taken this truth to heart:

If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. (source)

I loved the authenticity of Sister Cristina’s words… She didn’t have to think them over, but they emerged from within a heart given over to the love of God and her fellow brothers and sisters… those ‘interlocutors’ who were presented to her in a kind of ‘divine appointment’ of the moment.

Why was she on The Voice?

I have a gift; I’ll give it to you!

She wasn’t on the show for herself, but because she noticed that God desired to make an invitation to this audience, to woo them, to cause them to ‘look again’ and perhaps really see for the first time, to feel the call of beauty, which can then lay the groundwork for the call of goodness, and perhaps then for the call of truth. (Father Robert Barron recently highlighted this sequence during a keynote address at the LA Religious Education Congress).

Sister Cristina somehow discerned — with the assistance of her religious community — that this was a way God was inviting her to be a part of a divine gesture of love and invitation. In one of his early plays, Karol Wojtyla puts these words on the lips of one of his characters:

Everyone has been given an existence and a love; the only question is: how to build a sensible structure from it? (Adam, in The Jewelers Shop)

Some may ask: Will this effort be fruitful or not? That will be up to the grace of God and the disposition of the recipient. Sister Cristina simply responded to the invitation to cast the seeds far and wide. Yes, some will fall on rocky soil. But when she chose her coach, I think she chose the most favorable soil, as best as she could discern it. She chose, and left the rest to God.

When the idea of missionary endeavor in the field of entertainment is raised, some object by noticing the very real danger of the missionary being de-evangelized by the culture to which they seek to witness.

To be sure, every mission — whether to the entertainment industry, the porn industry, or Kenya, to name only three — has perils and dangers. But the presence of danger is not sufficient reason to avoid a mission field.

On a personal note: I remember how, when I first encountered this prayer by Barbara Nicolosi back in 2002, my perspective on Hollywood changed, and I began to see that it was a mission field to be loved and not simply a wasteland to be feared. One section of the prayer reads:

We ask forgiveness from every soul in torment and loneliness who has lived and died without the hope that we could have shared with them had we been better apostles of the media. We take responsibility for the darkness of error that we have allowed to flourish by our silence in the culture. For failing to stir the collective heart of humanity towards that which is good by beautiful movies and inspiring television, and haunting melodies, we are sorry. We ask forgiveness from all those whom we might have led to their knees, or sustained on their spiritual journeys, or inspired to a life of heroism and greatness.
Let us ask forgiveness of those whose lives have been scarred by our failure to find a compelling forum for the Church in the arts and media. For keeping the Gospel of Life to ourselves in a culture of death, we are ashamed and sorry. For ignoring the Church’s mandate to use film and television and radio to unite the human family in the cause of truth and social justice, we are sorry. We repent of the lack of creativity and passion with which we have applied Christian principles to the real problems of our day.

I responded by engaging in a period of study with the Act One: Writing for Hollywood program, followed by a time of discernment, and finally by moving to Los Angeles for five years to serve in the spiritual slums of Hollywood. For the most part, my own path in Hollywood was simply service to other artists out here, primarily through a Theology of the Body study group, assisting with an RCIA program in Hollywood, and serving as a juror for the Angelus Awards Student Film Festival. And yes, there were a few other random initiatives, such as this and this. At the end of those five years, I wrote this post about what my five years in the mission field were about, as best as I understood it.

Of course, each person must discern what God is really asking of them… where their unique talents and the needs of the world meet. This is not always an easy discernment. I think of Fr Walter Ciszek, SJ, in his spiritual autobiography He Leadeth Me; God led him down a path he least expected, but invited him to recognize His will in every encounter, especially in every setback, suffering and disappointment. God’s will, he learned, is not out there somewhere, in a place and time of our own choosing or imagining, but reveals itself here and now, in the duties of the present moment. That is where God’s will makes its appeal to us.

Back to Sister Cristina: From where I stand, and based on what I know of this Ursuline sister from Sicily, I cannot but applaud her for following the exhortation of Blessed Pope John Paul II to put out “into the deep.” No matter if everyone in the mission field of entertainment has been fishing all night, to no avail. No matter if the danger seems great, and the hope of a positive outcome seems dim. When God decides to make Himself known… when He finds a net, capable and willing to be cast out into deep waters, and when the deep is populated with creatures ready to respond, there is no telling what yield the encounter will bring. He alone knows what the yield will be. And the yield is really none of our business; it comes from Him, it belongs to Him, it is for Him.  All that matters, on our part, is to be a willing net.

UPDATE (3/25/14): Over at First Things, The Anchoress reflects on how some have reacted to Sister Cristina with an acid bath of ingratitude.

for greater glory

Two weeks ago, I saw an advance screening of the newly-released movie For Greater Glory. Here’s my take on the film:

Andy Garcia delivers a solid performance as a man transformed by the mission that he takes up. In its best moments, the complex story of the Mexican Civil War travels alongside the narrative of the film’s main characters with a decent balance of nuance and sense of purpose. The dialogue, on the other hand, is so heavy on purpose as to exclude nearly all subtext.

The movie didn’t do a skilful job of letting the audience know whose story it was and why we should care in the first 30 minutes. There isn’t much work for the viewer to do — there’s a lot more telling than showing — other than the challenge of establishing who the minor characters are and how they relate to the rest of the cast. Many scenes feel more like set pieces for the stage than cinematic — quite a few scenes started too soon and lasted too long — and the over-long second act meanders without a strong narrative through-line. With some disciplined editing, it’s a story that could have been more compelling at 100 minutes than at its present 137.

That said, the movie does gain steam in the last 40 minutes as we finally know and care enough about the characters to feel authentically moved by the movie’s climax. A beautiful score by James Horner dominates most scenes, but its over-use means that, ultimately, it seems less purposeful and theme-driven than it might have otherwise.

I think the movie is definitely worth seeing for its presentation of an unfamiliar piece of Mexican-American history not far removed from our own day in either time or relevance.

It was better than There Be Dragons, and in a totally different league from Facing the Giants. In the moments when it wasn’t beautiful, it made me long for beauty. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder.) But enough of the back-handed praise….

I should probably see For Greater Glory again with consideration of its moral depth in mind, but as I think back on the narrative, I don’t think there was much complexity in it. Some of the conflicts were far too easily resolved; one that comes to mind is a scene between Peter O’Toole, who plays an elderly foreign-born priest, and the young protagonist. O’Toole’s character quickly determines what his role will be vis-a-vis the conflict without much deliberation or any kind of struggle. Even from a cinematic point-of-view, the lack of conflict becomes problematic. I felt carried along by the narrative, rather passively, without engaging difficult questions.

Especially in the early moments of the film, there were moments that were supposed to be emotionally engaging, but because one didn’t know the characters well enough, or what was at stake for them, I experienced something I can only call an emotional Doppler effect: one only understood the significance of the moments after they had passed. The audience wasn’t allowed into the fray of the moral dilemmas, but left a spectator… and the drama of history carried the story forward without really inviting the audience in. I’m not describing it well, but it was a story problem, to my way of thinking.

Also, the antagonists in the film were broadly drawn scapegoats, with little sense of their motivation (with the exception, perhaps, of Calles himself at certain moments).

In my mind, it is at once the most opportune and inopportune time for this movie’s message about religious freedom. Having listened to the objections of many people to religious freedom concerns vis-a-vis public policy in recent months, I can safely say that the movie does not answer any of the objections, which in a sense is no fault of its own, since it was produced long before the battle lines of the present year had really been drawn. But it adds nothing really thoughtful to that conversation.

I am ready to admit I wanted too much from this movie. Given the hostility to religious liberty currently on display in America, by many in the culture, and no small number of Catholics (including the Secretary of Health and Human Services), I wanted something that would trouble people out of their complacency… I wanted an awakening for those most glib about the need for religion to go back behind its closed doors and stop bothering the secularist vision of progress. I just don’t think that anyone without sympathies for the cause of religious liberty would come out of the theater with anything resembling a change of heart on this issue. Instead, people could come away feeling even more smug about the destructive power of religious fervor.

The movie does not so much carry a theme as it does a bumper sticker. A bumper sticker is a cheer raised on behalf of a cause it already believes in. A theme is something that has to be argued, and makes an appeal to the mind to work through a paradox and thus can speak to both the believer and the doubtful, along lines that are truly universal. And so, in that sense, I think the movie has limited audience. Although the action sequences (and in particular the sound design… bullets never sounded so good passing from one ear to the other) may cover a multitude of other considerations for audiences already primed to cheer.

Bumper sticker: Religious freedom is good.

Theme: Religious freedom protects the deepest core of what it means to be human.

For Greater Glory offered the bumper sticker, but wasn’t prepared for the hard work of delivering the theme. And so the glory of this film will not be so great: it will not be able to earn artistic credibility with the non-convinced. (See this review, for instance.)

Any Catholic defenders of religious liberty who might interpret this half-hearted review as a sign that I am a traitor to the cause of religious liberty, I will ask you this: Will you please spare an hour sometime to watch this YouTube presentation  by Barbara Nicolosi? Many thanks.