Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Film as Cultural Transcendence

Watching this year’s Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, A Man Called Ove, I was deeply transformed by the experience. This Swedish film dealt with some very profoundly human existential questions, namely, our need for other people and their need for us. Our life has meaning and we are all in this together. The town curmudgeon, Ove (Rolf Lassgard) recently lost his wife and his job and believes there is nothing else to live for so he decides to end it all to be with his wife once again. His attempts to end it are always foiled by someone who needs him. Reluctantly he grows close to his new neighbors, and the woman befriends him and helps him to see the beauty and value of life. After watching this comedy/drama I felt a new surge of being a presence of hope in this digital age, to share with those who are lonely that they are never really alone. There is always the greater human family. It was a transcendent experience for me, and led me to reflect more deeply on my life and vocation.  

What exactly is transcendence? It is something that goes beyond normal human experience. It takes us beyond to another realm—a spiritual realm.

Film has the power of transforming us from within by involving us in a visual, emotional and spiritual experience. It does this through sounds, images and stories, where we find deeper meaning for our existence and how God works in the world. It is by grappling with what it means to be human that we often come to an awareness of the Divine. Through the medium of film we discover theological themes such as evil, violence, grace, temptation, sin, forgiveness and communion. Even within the genres of horror, science-fiction and fantasy we can enter into the darkness of humanity to come back out into the light of grace[1].

John Paul II, in his Letter to Artists, writes, “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”[2] De Profundis films, as Fr. Peter Malone, international film critic, calls them, search the depths of human sinfulness to convey the need for redemption. De Profundis is from the opening lines of Psalm 130, Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, Lord hear my voice![3] Expanding our understanding of the rational to include imagination can often help humanity cope with the tragic and unexplainable circumstances of life.

Some truly amazingly transcendent films are ones that deal with the struggle to survive, facing one’s darkness, and overcoming tragedy. Some of my favorites are: True Grit, The Godfather II, Gran Torino, Birdman, Shawshank Redemption, Cinema Paradiso, Gravity, The Dressmaker, Hidden Figures, Sea of Trees, and Before Midnight. These films give us pause to ask what deep existential yearnings do they express? What is happening in these films? What is the movie’s point of view? What values are being portrayed or ignored? How is the human person depicted? What existential desires are expressed? Is there a resolution or does it leave us in ambiguity about human existence and the meaning of life? What does this film say about the supernatural existential, that human desire for “the more”? Does the film have a transcendent quality? If so, what is it? How can viewing this film lead us to God? What were the signs and symbols used and how do they convey grace or a deeper meaning.

The world of cinema can lead us to know ourselves more profoundly and so realize the humanity that gives God glory. Film often addresses the lights and shadows within the human person sometimes offering hope that darkness does not have the last word, such as in The Dark Knight which shows the good still present in humanity despite the evil that terrorizes humanity. The existential questioning persists in films such as Cinema Paradiso, Moonlight, Arrival, Henry Poole is Here, Silence, Manchester by the Sea, Groundhog Day and many others. Many film noir movies hold us in the shadows without resolution, such as No Country for Old Men, Blue Jasmine, Doubt, Lost in Translation and The Wrestler. God’s grace is continually at work bringing humanity out of the darkness into the light of God’s embrace.

Many films seek to address the heart-wrenching and aching emotional pains of human living. Most of these have to do with relationships that can bring us the greatest joy and the deepest sorrow, such as in The Painted Veil when Kitty (Naomi Watts) becomes bored with her dull doctor husband (Edward Norton) and seeks fulfillment in another man, until he takes her to China on a medical mission trip. It is there that she discovers the beauty of their relationship and married love. We are called to be in communion with God, ourselves, and others and yet this is often our Waterloo as human beings. As a culture, we prize individualism, that is, taking care of ourselves, seeking our own good, doing what we want, making sure we are happy. But, true life comes only when we give ourselves in love to others, when we give love away—freely and unconditionally. Our sorrow and pain come from relationships when we hold onto our selfishness, pride and fear to engage in the risky business of humble, self-giving love, as is depicted in Marvin’s Room. Only when the two sisters Lee (Meryl Streep) and Bessie (Diane Keaton) reconcile after the revelation of Bessie’s cancer diagnosis does the relationship change from continuous contention to selfless love. We are social beings and so seek connection, intimacy and union.

[1 Cf. Jeff Sellars, Ed., Light Shining in a Dark Place: Discovering Theology Through Film, (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publishing, 2012), xviii.
[2] Pope John Paul II, “Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists”, (Vatican, 1999), No. 10.
[3] Sellars, Light Shining in Dark Place, 34-36.
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Sr. Nancy Usselmann is a Daughter of St. Paul, the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles and a Media Literacy Education Specialist. She has degrees in Communications Arts and a Masters in Theology and Arts. For over 25 years, Sr. Nancy has given numerous media mindfulness workshops, presentations and film retreats around the country to youth, young adults, catechists, seminarians, teachers and media professionals helping them to create the dialogue between faith and media. She is a contributing writer for Fuller's Reel Spirituality website and a board member of CIMA (Catholics in Media Associates), a member of NAMLE (National Association of Media Literacy Educators) and SIGNIS (International Organization for Media)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Blue meadow or dead gray walls?

Stephen Crane

Can we talk about Poets and Teachers of Dogma? These two professions can seem like direct opposites. Poets deal in dreams, dogmatists in stark certainties. Or so it seems to a society like ours for whom even the word "dogma" is a buzzkill.  Yet both Poets and Teachers of Dogma use language to express the fragile mysteries of our human lives.




In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter -- bitter," he answered;
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."
Stephen Crane, 1871-1900 

Stephen Crane--poet, novelist, journalist and short story writer--was 13 years old when Blessed James Alberione was born in 1884.  He lived only 29 years, dying in 1900, the same year Blessed Alberione received enlightenment in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament on The Night Between the Centuries. Yet both the poet and the priest can aptly be described as men before their time.

Stephen Crane explored man's alienation from God and his vulnerability to the harshness of nature--both his own human nature and the external environment.  He played fast and loose with the poetic conventions of his time, leaving rules of rhyming behind to write short, pithy poems that anticipated the twentieth century rage for blank verse.

Crane, the non-observant son of a minister, was not sentimental in describing human life. Whether describing tenement life in New York City (Maggie: Girl of the Streets,) or at the horrors of war in The Red Badge of Courage, he wrote with realism. He felt estranged from conventional Christian culture in his sympathetic affinity for the poor with whom he often lived.  When he looked inward, he saw fallen human nature:
I stood upon a high place,
And saw, below, many devils
Running, leaping,
and carousing in sin. One looked up, grinning,
And said, "Comrade! Brother!"
  --- Stephen Crane 

Blessed James Alberione was not a poet, but he valued poets and other writers who use art to communicate truth, beauty and goodness.  I think he would have appreciated Crane's preferential treatment of the poor. He would have approved the poet's interior search for the true God:

A man went before a strange God --
The God of many men, sadly wise.

And the deity thundered loudly,
Fat with rage, and puffing.

"Kneel, mortal, and cringe
And grovel and do homage
To My Particularly Sublime Majesty."

Then the man went to another God --
The God of his inner thoughts.

And this one looked at him
With soft eyes
Lit with infinite comprehension, 
And said, "My poor child!"
           -- Stephen Crane
Art critic Sr. Wendy Beckett
by portrait of Blessed Alberione
As unpopular as it may be now in the world of men that Blessed Alberione loved so much, dogma was not unimportant to the Founder.He urged his priests, religious and laity to study and advance in their learning always, with an eye towards integrating all human subjects with the realities expressed by the teachings of the Catholic Church.  But for James Alberione the teaching and communciating of divine realities--the realities expressed in dogma--had no bombast or fundamentalism. It was a matter of listening to Christ speaking within one's deepest interior.  And how like a poet, is a teacher of divine truths, when he sits at the feet of the Divine Master. As Blessed Alberione writes: 
Above all, Jesus is the interior Master. 
What does this mean? It means that his work of teaching does not limit itself to the ear, but penetrates within. He created our mind, our will, our heart, and he enlightens us, because Jesus is the light which gives light to every man who comes into this world (cf. Jn. 1:9).
Perhaps we have rarely given consideration to the profound meaning of this expression: the Word is the light and the light is life (cf. Jn. 1:4); and all was made through him (cf. Jn. 1:3). When speaking of Christ Light, what is meant is the possibility of knowing. 
We can know things because Christ renders them luminous and he enlightens us interiorly. He gives us the cognitive power. He increases it, vivifies it, and renders it more penetrating, so that every thought will become an illumination of the Divine Master (HM III, 1947, Jan. retreat).

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Faith Feels Fragile


When Faith Feels Fragile: Hope for the Wary, Weak, and Wandering
by R. Scott Hurd is 40-chapter must-read book offered by Pauline Books & Media that “reassures, inspires, encourages, and challenges you to take practical steps to reawaken your faith.”  The 40-chapter layout makes it a perfect companion for Lent as well as the Advent/Christmas Seasons; or as a companion for any time your faith is feeling a little fragile.




Scott Hurd’s first book, Forgiveness: The Catholic Approach initiated, in my life, a much-needed decision to let go and move beyond a bevy of past hurts. The book had such a powerful impact on me that it became an instrumental part of the presentations and retreats I offer on how to find peace in forgiveness. Likewise, Hurd’s book on building faith was life-altering, it too took a very fragile piece of who I was and shored it up and moved me forward.



When Faith Feels Fragile includes a list of impediments to developing or maintaining a stronger faith. They have led me to do much pondering over the years. Today we’ll look not only at Scott Hurd’s thoughts and perspective on these hindrances, but also a few ah-ha moments from my own experiences of faith.






  • "Cultural Static"  Hurd explains that “cultural static” makes it difficult to maintain a solid faith life because "the world shouts at us," demanding our attention. My time reading Scripture has taught me, however, that God's voice often comes in a whisper.  In order to hear it over the din of this word, I need to make time to be quiet and listen.  For me, this means planning my day to include at least one purposeful moment of prayer. Depending on my schedule that day, this time may be 15 minutes before I tackle my to-do list, a walk to pray the rosary or to unplug and chat with God, or--because I am blessed to have a chapel five minutes from my home--adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
  • Responsibilities  Life is crazy. Part of our responsibilities should include asking God for the grace to find balance between work and leisure, as well as remembering He desires to be included in both! 
  • "Outta sight, outta mind"  Hurd tells the reader this is where too many people leave God and all things religious. Although not one to ever think I know the mind of God, I find it hard to believe that He would create us and then only want to spend one hour a week with us. If you are a parent, did you have kids to visit (perhaps even distractedly) with them a mere hour a week? The answer again I believe is planning and being mindful. In addition to planning prayer, I assure my week includes multiple spiritual activities that keep me connected to Christ. Attendance at a bible study or at a spiritual reading book club at the church or in my home, participation in a parish activity or organization, and connecting on social media with other Catholics, are just a few ideas.
  • Information overload   This is probably how most of us feel 99% of the time when perusing Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest! This inundation of information can impede our faith by either keeping us too busy to pursue things of God or by barraging us with info that may confuse our understanding of faith.
  • Lack of Catechism   This lack may be a result of what we failed to receive in our past or what we fail to seek in the present.  Most of my friends felt like the Sacrament of Confirmation was a completion not of our Baptism but of our need for religious education.  God is unfathomable.  Every day we should be actively seeking to discover something new about God, and who we are in Him.
  • Seek Guidance in all the wrong places   We do this in self-help books, online, Oprah, even sometimes well-meaning friends. The best advice, for every facet of our lives, can be found in God.  He has provided us a wealth of ways to garner grace (his undeserved yet freely given gift of his Holy Spirit) to guide us primarily through the Sacraments, Scripture and prayer.   


Two of my greatest obstacles to a dependent faith in God are my pride and my selfish desires. As Scott Hurd points out, "Jesus came to us in weakness, not in power," and further exemplified by the words of St. Mother Teresa, "We can understand the majesty of God; it is very difficult to understand the humility of God."  I must be honest, I have always thought that to humble meant to prepare myself to be humiliated!!

I recall about 10 years ago praying to be a less self-absorbed person. Within a week the WORSE picture of me in the entire world was placed on the front cover our local paper, which at the time was mailed DIRECTLY to every home in town!! While truly humiliating, it was not the answer to my prayer to be humble though it sure did knock me down a notch or two!  It taught me nothing about how to surrender my heart to God, to rely on his love for me--in all things.

True humility is “being down to earth”, it is being completely HONEST with ourselves about who we really are, and it is recognizing the limits of who we truly are in Christ.  Humility is such a crucial part of growing in faith, as Hurd reminds us, "When we're humble, we can accept who we are and because of that, we can accept that we have a need for God."   Regardless of our personal impediments, the only way to remove them is to admit we can do nothing without Christ.  Through prayer, participation in the Sacraments and the Word of God even the most fragile of faiths can be fortified.

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Allison Gingras is founder of Reconciled To You where she blogs, shares and speaks about the Catholic faith in our everyday life and the many opportunities life presents to discover the grace of God!  She shares these with great enthusiasm, passion and a sense of humor.  Allison is a WINE Specialist overseeing and facilitating the online aspect of the Between the WINES Book Clubs for WINE: Women in the New Evangelization.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

An Infinite Deal of Words



The Birth of Christ, Gerard van Honthorst

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God , and the Word was God... And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, ... and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." - (John 1:1,14)

Mark "Perfesser Creek-water" D'Orazio
Have you ever suffered from language exhaustion? I have reached my limit just about now. Facebook, Twitter, news sites, other social media sites, all of these seem to be spewing an endless stream of self-righteousness, rage, insults and vitriol. So I want to talk about my brother, a man of many words. My brother Mark D'Orazio, whose nom de plume is "PERFESSER CREEK-WATER",  is a wanderer with no permanent home. Like Forrest Gump, he has walked from coast to coast-- several times in fact. Twenty-five years ago or so, he lived in New York City, under a bridge, and sold his poems on the street. He called himself a "HOME*LESS BY CHOICE WORD*SMITH." 

When Mark sold his poems on the streets of NYC, he separated them into two piles. One he called NICE WORDS, the other POLEMICS. He had a few regular customers, for whom he would select poems based on how the person was feeling that day. He would never select from the POLEMICS pile if the person was in a bad mood or feeling stressed. 


"You need nice words today," Mark would say, and draw a poem from his NICE WORDS pile.


It intrigued me that the two concepts were not opposites: nice words and polemics. They reflected two predominating passions of my brother--the simplicity and natural beauty of life on the road, and the quest for justice.

But Mark recognized that the quest for justice needed to be tempered by an appreciation for beauty, truth and goodness. Hence he refused to sell his polemical poems to customers who seemed in need of gentler words. 

I wrote a few weeks back about the conflict in the film Dr. Zhivago between art, represented by the poet, Yuri Zhivago, and politics, represented by the Bolshevik, Pasha Antipov. My brother Mark, in the way that he distributed his poems, showed that a person can embody both impulses, the artistic and the political.  Social media needs more folks who can do the same. Balance is what we need. I think I might overcome my exhaustion with words if there were more gentleness of expression spread among all those words that are a shrill call to arms.


Blessed James Alberione was a man of many words also. He correctly foresaw that the people of the 20th century and beyond would have a tsunami of words coming at them from the new means of communication that the technologies of the late 19th century were developing. These could be used for the good or for the bad:

"Throughout the night in every part of the world, thousands of great machines, operating at astonishing speeds, produce millions and millions of copies of magazines and newspapers. Each evening crowds of movie-goers watch motion pictures. For practically the entire day, radio and television are on the air with programs... Who is to say what percentage is good and what percentage, instead, is dangerous?" (Thoughts p. 168)

And so I will consider my brother Mark, whose percentage of words is near 100% good, even in his polemics. What kind of poem are you in the mood for today?  The first is from his collection of "nice words", the second from his polemics.  Could we please have more of a balance of each?

Note: Mark has been writing in all caps since before the Internet began, before it came to mean "shouting"*. Now approaching 70 years of age, he has been experimenting with lower-case. But these are from his earlier works.


EARTH + SKY (From "NICE WORDS")



THE SKY IS MY ROOF
THE EARTH IS MY HOME
THIS MUCH IS TRUE WHERE*EVER I ROAM
A POSITIVE ATTITUDE OUT ON "THE STREET"
RESPECT + COMPASSION FOR PEOPLE I MEET

I USE WHAT I FIND I STEAL FROM NO ONE
I LAY DOWN TO REST WHEN DAY'S WORK IS DONE

AND EVEN THO LIFE IS NOT ALWAYS A LARK
LOOK FOR THE LIGHT EVEN WHEN IT IS DARK

I TRY TO GO FORWARD EACH DAY AS I LIVE

IF YOU DO ME WRONG I AM QUICK TO FORGIVE

IF I DO YOU WRONG THEN I HOPE + I PRAY

THAT WE SOON CAN BE FRIENDS AGAIN
WITHOUT DELAY

SINCERELY - M.D. 1990



THE BAGEL-BAKERs (From "POLEMICS")



THE BAKERs BAKE THE BAGELs EVERY DAY

   THE DUMPSTER SITs OUT BACK NEAR-BY THE DOOR
AND WHAT THEY DO NOT SELL,  THEY THROW AWAY
   A HUNDRED THOUSAND BAGELs,  MAYBE MORE

ARE PEOPLE GO-ING HUNGRY EVERY NIGHT ??
   OR AM I JUST A POOR DELUDED FOOL ??
I WANT TO KNOW WHAT's WRONG + WHAT IS RIGHT
   OF THINGs THEY JUST DON'T TALK ABOUT IN SCHOOL

I SEE THIS BAGEL-DUMPSTER LOCK'D UP TIGHT
   WITH LOCKs + BARs + QUARTER-INCH-THICK STEEL
I PEEK IN-SIDE:  SOME BAGELs ARE IN SIGHT
   IF I BE HUNGRY,  HOW YOU THINK I FEEL ??

     NOW SHOULD I MENTION THEIR ADDRESS ??
     NO --- THEY KNOW WHO THEY ARE,  I GUESS

NEW YORK CITY / 1989 

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*In the preface to his writings, Mark always puts this advisory:  "PERFESSER" CREEK-WATER KNOWs HOW TO CORRECT-LY SPELL MOST WORDs IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, AND CHOOSEs ALTERNATE SPELLs TO HELP READERs BUST OUT OF HABITUAL THINKING-PATTERNs ... PLUS: HE LIKEs HYPHENs
.

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Rae Stabosz has been a member of the Association of Pauline Cooperators since 2003. She and Bill Stabosz, her husband of 48 years, have six sons, three daughters, ten grandsons and eight granddaughters; they eagerly await the birth of grands #19 & #20 in October. Rae retired in 2007 from the University of Delaware, where she was a technology and media specialist for 27 years. She is co-founder and past president of The Society of Catholic Scholars of Delaware and proprietor, since 2004, of the Pious Ladies Bookmobile.