ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF MOZART’S DEATH: WHY CATHOLIC?

I frequently get asked “Why Catholic?” by diverse self-proclaimed demographics; Evangelical Protestants, Rad Trads, and that sector of atheists who can be just as either/or in thinking as religious fundamentalists.  I can think of no more apt and meaningful a symbol than Mozart as an initial gateway as a response to that question, although there is more to it than that.

My introduction to artmusic was at a young age and while I started off with the standards (i.e. Beethoven and Wagner), by my late teens and early twenties, I was venturing into the more modern terrain of Bruckner, Mahler, Debussy, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bartok, Boulez, Xenakis, Feldman, and Nono. At 55, I’ve gone back primarily to the one constant throughout my life; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I have no greater love in music than Mozart, but he is merely music to the degree that the Grand Canyon is merely a rock. It’s no accident that theologians Karl Barth and Hans Kung, along with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, wrote extensively on Mozart. The famous film on Mozart seems to pooh pooh his religiosity. It’s an excellent film that otherwise drops the ball on that and errs in denying us a vital and profound dimension to Mozart and his art. Barth, a Protestant, struggled and was baffled by Mozart’s passionate Catholicism and disdain for Protestantism (a disdain that Michelangelo shared), which prompted a loving and respectful laugh from Merton and Kung. Perhaps the film (and the play it was based off) failed to look at Mozart’s devotion due to being sidetracked by his excesses and surface immorality (the composer of Don Giovanni did know of what he wrote). Yet, despite his personal shortcomings, what we find in Mozart’s music and letters is a deeply ethical voice (ethics ((the Golden Rule)) being different than morals). He was consistently frustrated by his inability to financially provide for his children and wife, who he loved and was devoted to sacramentally, but through it all he did what he was here to do in his brief life; There has never been a more aesthetically Catholic composer. Mozart was Catholic in that he was stubbornly focused, despite the ugliness in people and life that threatened to engulf him, to create a world of immeasurably profound beauty. I relate or aspire to that, which is perhaps why, as I am middle-aged, I spend much time with the beauty of Mozart. He had the authentic pulse of Catholicism in that he could not penetrate the status quo and a deeper Catholicism is radically removed from bourgeoisie precepts. Rad Trads tend to speak through a dualistic model rather than a unitive model, which is what Catholicism actually is. Like super patriots (another cult) and extremist right-wingers (btw, non-religious radical right are even worse than the religious right), they will inevitably suggest leaving the Church when not in agreement with them. No, because to do so would inevitably confirm that it is their Church alone.

Some of the greatest Catholic artists were, in fact, renegades (Caravaggio, Paul Gauguin, Gustav Mahler, Gerard Manly Hopkins, and Flannery O’ Connor being examples) producing work of shattering beauty. Charlie Chaplin, Luis Bunuel, Pablo Picasso, and Pierre Boulez were self-proclaimed atheists. Yet, the Vatican declared Chaplin’s Tramp as the most religious of all cinematic figures. Neither Orson Welles nor Andrei Tarkovsky accepted Bunuel’s claim, and rightly assessed him as a deeply religious filmmaker. Belatedly, art historians are seeing the depth of Picasso’s religiosity in his work. Boulez was often at his most inspired in responses to his familial Catholicism (i.e. Rituel and Repons). It was these artists who left the earliest and most lasting impressions on me; impressions in which I found an identification point. Often, I have defensively stated that I am Catholic because I am an artist, not vice versa. Yet, I also recall a comment made by my late aunt Greta, who upon learning that I had converted, said (to my Father), “You won’t understand this, but your son was born Catholic.” She may have had a point because even though she took me to my first Catholic parish, my world was already filled with the artists above, because they were brothers and sisters to me.

The remainder of this amounts to an unpacking, in part, because my novel, Brother Cobweb is going to be published next April. When I first submitted the novel (which turned out to be a rough draft… many thanks to my editor) I attached the usual synopsis, along with intro and was frank in saying: “I took a pair of brass knuckles to the Midwestern religious right evangelical church.” One potential publisher wrote back (after reading), “no, not brass knuckles, you napalmed them.”

Of course, we all tend to make quick either/or assumptions and I’ve often found that the predictable dull assumption that I receive, from a quick glance at the novel synopsis or the Brother Cobweb character that I perform (at the House of Shadows) or some of my art, is that I’m an extreme leftist atheist.

No. Because both belief and unbelief are ultimately abstractions for me. I resist both words and the implications they are saddled with. Too, whether we admit it or not, most of us are both progressive and conservative in areas, so those categories are given to extremisms and are rendered hopelessly two-dimensional.

I refer to some of my art, although by no means all of it, as trench theology; a holding to accountability, akin to the statement made by the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner: “The number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim Him with their mouths, but deny Him with their actions is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.” I repeatedly had that reaction myself long before I ever heard of Rahner. As an early teen, my mother’s evangelical church forced me to read the gospels and, with me, it was the biggest mistake they made because this man who people call Christ that I discovered in the Gospels; that was not them. Worse, through their actions, abuses, and verbiage, they had kept Him from me. Him, I am all about. I wasn’t at first, despising the hackneyed picture of Him as a thug whose followers I had to dumb down to in order to survive. Due to the intensity of their tactics and relentless hypocrisies, that caricature of him was ingrained, and even after plunging into the gospels myself, it took decades of struggling, which included a period of atheism, to eradicate the parody.

I recently read an article in which the writer took some bishops to task and he conjectured that they do know the words of Christ. Now, I am hardly a sola scriptura kind of guy and when you hear that phrase: “The Bible came out of the Church. The Church did not come out of the Bible,” it’s true and that’s a historical fact. Cardinal Newman added, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” That’s an authentic statement as well, but as Paul Harvey used to say, “And now the rest of the story.” Because even the Church came out of something and I’m not referring per se to our Semitic origins, although we should be astutely aware and respectful of that. Rather, I am referring to what the Gospel According to John says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Church sprang from Christ and Christ was Word.

Let’s divorce ourselves for a moment from all that redemption language because far too many use it as a crutch to justify not Living it and a Word has to be Living. In his short sojourn on this planet, Christ said a lot of Words and it is a scandal that those Words are not Living in the hearts, minds, and Spirit of so many who profess him, but He also predicted this. How can one profess Him and yet not abide by what He taught, or heed His warning? Matthew twenty five is clear: “I was hungry and you did not feed me, I was thirsty and you did not give me drink. I was an immigrant and you did not take me in. I was naked and you did not clothe me: sick and in prison and you did not give me medicine and visit me.’ And they asked Him, ‘when did we do this to thee?’ and he replied, ‘ Amen, I say to you, when you did it not to the least of these, neither did you do it to me.” Yet, over the years, I have heard alleged Christians attempt to spin doctor that with a vapid, “well, he meant members of the Church.” Mind you also, these tend to be Christians who mantle the facade of taking everything at face value… until it becomes a mirror. These self-professed Christians will go to any length in order to weasel out of Matthew 25 and, despite what they claim, they are far more atheistic in practice than any atheist.

No, we cannot dodge or spin doctor Matthew 25, the Beatitudes, the Good Samaritan, the Golden Rule, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the story of the Rich young ruler, His discourses on turning the other cheek, paying taxes, the Prodigal Son, His encounters with the adulteress, the Samaritan woman at the well, the Centurion and his pais, the prostitute who washed His feet, or His Mother’s Magnificat and cling to a perverse and farcical prosperity gospel, bigotries, sexism, or judgments.

Now, the next paint-by-number spin doctoring would be to claim that such a critical tone is in itself judgmental. Perhaps, but we need to recall that Christ did not condemn the adulteress. The thief by his side was, theoretically speaking, the first Christian. As a matter of fact, the only sins that Christ consistently called out were hypocrisy and avarice and he judged judgmentalism. When reflecting on that, I am reminded of the deist philosopher Jacques Ellul and his assertion that morality is often seen today through a solely erroneous patristic filter because the lucid portrait we receive of the Gospel’s Christ is that he was as maternal as he was paternal. His Beatitudes read as if spoken by the offspring of the woman who authored the Magnificat. He was influenced by Her, obeyed Her at Cana, just as He obeyed His Father in the Garden, which renders some Protestant disrespect (and often contempt) for Her as tragic and nonsensical.  We can no more separate Christ from His Mother than we can separate Him from His Father. Christ is unique among religious figures in that He treated women on a plane equal to men. In the gospel narrative, Post-Resurrection, He chose to reveal Himself first to a woman. No First Testament figure, or even Buddha, viewed women as equals to men. How then did Christianity get this so wrong?

With the Reformation, Protestants, across the board, threw out the Mother in their diminishment of Her, along with the female saints, thus rendering the Holy Family a dysfunctional one. The argument might be (and is frequently) made that some Protestant sects do have women clergy. That is true and should be commended, but clergy come and go. Symbols remain and it’s far more important and influential to retain those symbols.

Even the Post-Vatican II Church has slipped in this to a degree. In the name of ecumenicism, it has subdued the Maternal images. It did so out of sensitivity to Protestantism because nothing is more provocative than the maternal, especially here in the States. However, that is sloppy ecumenicism; holstering one of our most defining and edifying spiritual colors. Far too many post-Vatican II churches have lost the identity of the maternal and without the pronounced maternal, it is an anemic temple. Indeed, one would be pressed to feel it a temple at all because in the place of that is something akin to a bland basketball court where one can no longer walk in on a given Sunday and behold a Sea of Rosaries. The Rosary is a prism of the Christ consciousness and without it, we lose a vital facet of Him.

Regarding Christ Himself; it is becoming increasingly common among fundamentalist atheists to deny even His historical existence. They will often point to narrative “errors” in the Gospels, along with vignettes that clearly utilized preexisting folklore symbology (i.e. the shepherd). My first response to that will echo the late (and vastly underrated) Fr. Andrew Greeley who, upon hearing the venerable biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown debating with Hans Kung over the historicity of a gospel passage, Greeley asked: “Who cares?” Greeley, like Thomas Merton and Cardinal Newman, had the pulse of the Catholic imagination. Too, we have to realize that the way people wrote then is not beholding to our rules of writing. For us, it is either historical or myth, non-fiction or fiction. It has to be an A-Z linear narrative. That is not the way ancient writers penned narratives. It was common to mix historical with folklore, myth, symbology, metaphors, and poetry into a single narrative. Yes, there are inconsistences in the light of face value literalness, despite what biblical inerrancy advocates dishonestly claim. Gospels will describe certain incidents differently. For instance, one describes two possessed men and a lake. Another describes one possessed man and a river. If anything, that actually lends credence to something historical behind it; like two witnesses to an auto accident recalling details differently. We’ve all heard the asinine response, “Sometimes, you just gotta believe,” followed by “It was Holy Spirit inspired.” Even the Spirit has to be filtered through human hands and those replies do not wash, especially (and understandably) with each succeeding generation, who is less apt to dumb down. Pat Robertson, of all people, warned his followers, “If you continue to deny evolution, you’re going to lose your children.” They will not heed his warning and will lose them. Yes, they are that ignorant.

It does not matter how much of a given gospel narrative really happened (which is one of the most sophomoric of questions). What matters is the point behind it, to see it contextually and as a part of the whole. All the time we see questionable characters using a passage, divorced from what came before or after, to justify their agenda. A good way to gauge a Christ passage is to ask oneself, does it coincide with his sayings, teachings, and themes elsewhere? If it does not, then we are forced to dive contextually deeper. We may find that Christ is indeed consistent, but he is no simpleton, despite claims made by some that the bible is easy to understand. That is called denial. No it is not an easy or satisfying read and even His apostles complained, asking Him to be more straightforward, less allegorical. He had none of that, chastised them their laziness, and made them work for it.

Still, we can debate for half of forever on how much is real or historicity. I went through periods where I did. However, a few things kept coming back; this Man Christ was conceived out of wedlock (a death sentence at the time), was born in poverty, never traveled (that we know of) more than 100 miles past the place of His birth, never wrote a word, died in poverty, in His thirties, and was executed as a criminal (the only major religious figure to be murdered). The odds that we would still be talking about him 2,000 years later are virtually impossible, unless there’s something to it. If we are honest, we have to admit, since we are not eyewitnesses, that we don’t fully know, but faith, so to speak, lies in recognizing that there has to be something to it.

Why hold onto it? Because He is the most remarkable of all models, inspiring the likes of such diverse mystics as Paul, Augustine, Francis, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, the Little Flower, and Martin Luther King. In that phrase; fully man and fully God we find a connection to Christ’ two rules: Love God with all your heart, love your fellow man as yourself. They are inseparable. He had human complexities. We can turn to the man who spoke of The Least of These, the man who said, Leave her alone, the forgiver of the adulteress, His disregard for money, and, if we divorced all this from Him historically, we would likely label him a liberal today. However, we can also look at His discourses on the sanctity of Life and marriage, along with his ironclad rejection of divorce and would label him a conservative. The historical or gospel Christ never heard the terms liberal and conservative. Nor would he have wasted time on our silly labels. His law was consistent : unconditional Love and so, yes, He would be anti-guns (turn the other cheek), pro-immigration, anti-war, anti-divorce, anti-abortion, anti-narcissism, anti-unfettered Capitalism (Acts 2-5), pro-health care and he would reiterate, “for those who harm these little ones, it would be better had they never been born” and he would be consistent, as he was on this planet, in calling out the judges (plank meet splinter).

Again, people will take a passage out of context to dispute what He said, to pervert it in order to justify their failure to practice what they preach. Recall though that Paul’s attitude, when confronted by scripture thumpers of the period, was, “You can quote scripture all you want. I don’t care. I am about Christ.” Christ never said, “Worship Me.” He said : “Follow Me” AKA “Do as I Do.” Paul’s attitude is one to model, even in how we approach Paul, or at least the Paul of the first seven letters (I agree with modern biblical scholars that these are likely the only authentic Paul).

For those who complain about Pope Francis being political, one need only dive into scripture to refute those smoke screens because John the Baptist was political, Jesus of Nazareth was political (and he messed with the money system, which is what got Him killed), Paul was political. These were the original social justice warriors. Whoever thought that being an advocate of social justice would be considered a slur?  I call them smoke screens because that is what they are and accusations are used against this pope, usually with the yawn-inducing comment, “why isn’t he preaching Jesus instead of involving himself in politics and World affairs?” Of course, we never heard Francis’ critics complain when his two predecessors did the same. Because, like those models above, Francis is living it by being part of this world, aspiring to be a caretaker. The reason for those accusations are oh so diaphanous, except to the most dishonest. Most of what Francis teaches and speaks has been taught before, but his language is new and contemporary. It should be. At the end of John, we hear the phrase, “Go and spread the Good News.” News is always new and nothing provokes rad trads more than something new. It provokes them because they have put an ism (traditionalism) above the Word. They have made a cult of it and will usually quote Pius (not Christ) to justify their cultism. I belonged to a Facebook group that was overtaken by rad trads and they were (rightly) criticizing Pope Francis’ handling of the abuse crisis, but they were taking it to the point of labeling him a heretic. When I spoke up and reminded them that he inherited this mess from his predecessors, they became evasive and threw a blanket over it. Not appeasing them, I pressed on and directly asked why they had not criticized JPII and BXVI to the disrespectful degree they do Francis. I’ll give credit where credit is due I suppose because they were honest when they said that they let JPII and BXVI off the hook because they were traditional enough and therefore not heretics. They would not afford Francis this because he was (in their words) a modernist. So, I asked: “In other words, if a pope is traditional enough for you, you will sweep the abuse under the rug?” They flat out answered, “Yes.” I think I was booted out the same day (and put that on my resume of accomplishments).

So, Why then the Church?

Because the Word said: “Even the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” Time and again, people have proclaimed the death of the Church, only to discover that is a premature obituary. We can (rightly) point to the abusers (God knows I have), but with the awareness that the gates of Hell often come from within and it has been that way from day one. All  Christ’ apostles denied Him and fell short. One betrayed Him. If we were to deny Christ, the religion, and the Church due to countless Judases, then the religion would not have survived the physical life of Christ. The Reformation would have been theoretically necessary, if the reformers had not merely repeated the same mistakes, even surpassing the mistakes of their models. We see it still today with 40,000 plus Protestant denominations and New Age groups (who tend to bandy about that vapid ‘we’re spiritual not religious trendy catchphrase) being as guilty of tribalism and ethical bankruptcy as those they have long criticized (perhaps even more so. Anne Rice, who did leave the Church, once said ‘The Catholic Church is the only church that strives for holiness, which is why it falls down so much.’) Although it will not look like it to those on the outside, there is an edifiying freedom in the structure of the Church, even when we, as individuals  and members of its body, find ourselves at odds with those who deem themselves our shepherds (and to them, I would counter that Beethoven’s Fidelio and Mozart’s sense of intimacy convey the importance of the individual over the structure while being children of the structure).

We must indeed hold the hypocrisy, the I, Me, Mine narcissism, and materialism to accountability and there is nothing hypocrites hate more than their hypocrisy exposed. They will, at best, ignore being called out. At worst, they will prepare the fire and stake. Yet, we are guilty ourselves if we do not hold them and ourselves accountable (as scripture says). When we fail to do so, we are complicit in creating prodigals through our neglect, indifference, and abuses. We keep Christ from them. We are seeing it more and more. Millennials are, to a broad degree, rejecting religion. A priest I once knew said that a Satanic theology transforms Christ into the quintessential Pharisee, making him so pedestaled, so pretty, so perfect that no one can touch him (or his Church). It is easy to be seduced by such false tinseled beauty. To a large degree, we were and our successors see and find our actions repugnant.

Rahner said: “the future Christian will be a mystic or he will not be Christian at all.” He was right and that is vital. So too is trench theology. Both are essential to an authentic Catholic path.

Hence, my contribution called Brother Cobweb and why I am Catholic.

(reblog) Merciful Heart — Gospel Isosceles

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A broken twenty year old boy declared war on humanity and slaughtered his own mother, twenty first-graders, six elementary school staff, and then himself. This was six years ago and it doesn’t hurt any less. My hope is that anyone who suffers in isolation, anyone who feels unwanted by ‘the rest of humanity’, be the […]

via Merciful Heart — Gospel Isosceles

A Hundred Flowers — Gospel Isosceles (reblog) writing words about Amaya’s words feels damned inadequate. However, I will say briefly that her work always confronts and unnerves me in the best possible ways.

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What are you waiting for? For me to admit that, like you, all I ever wanted was an open-concept floor-plan and a walk-in closet just for shoes I only wear once or twice a year? For a selection of grocers within a five-mile radius from which to choose where to get my daily bread […]

via A Hundred Flowers — Gospel Isosceles

SEA OF ROSARIES: Our Lady of Pontmain

Our Lady of Pontmain ©2018 Alfred Eaker

Hagia Sophia (Thomas Merton)

I. Dawn. The Hour of Lauds.

There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a
dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden whole-
ness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom,
the Mother of all, Natura naturans. There is in all
things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence
that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in word-
less gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen
roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly,
saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at
once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of
my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking
as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom.

I am awakened, I am born again at the voice of this,
my Sister, sent to me from the depths of the divine
fecundity.

Let us suppose I am a man lying asleep in a hospital.
I am indeed this man lying asleep. It is July the second,
the Feast of Our Lady’s Visitation. A Feast of Wisdom.

At five-thirty in the morning I am dreaming in a very
quiet room when a soft voice awakens me from my
dream. I am like all mankind awakening from all the
dreams that ever were dreamed in all the nights of the
world. It is like the One Christ awakening in all the
separate selves that ever were separate and isolated
and alone in all the lands of the earth. It is like all minds
coming back together into awareness from all distractions,
cross-purposes and confusions, into unity of love. It is like
the first morning of the world (when Adam, at the sweet voice
of Wisdom awoke from nonentity and knew her), and like the Last
Morning of the world when all the fragments of Adam will return from
death at the voice of Hagia Sophia, and will know where they stand.

Such is the awakening of one man, one morning, at
the voice of a nurse in the hospital. Awakening out
of languor and darkness, out of helplessness, out of
sleep, newly confronting reality and finding it to be
gentleness.

It is like being awakened by Eve. It is like being
awakened by the Blessed Virgin. It is like coming
forth from primordial nothingness and standing in
clarity, in Paradise.

In the cool hand of the nurse there is the touch of all
life, the touch of Spirit.

Thus Wisdom cries out to all who will hear (Sapientia
clamitat in plateis) and she cries out particularly
to the little, to the ignorant and the helpless.

Who is more little, who is more poor than the helpless
man who lies asleep in his bed without awareness and
without defense? Who is more trusting than
he who must entrust himself each night to sleep?
What is the reward of his trust? Gentleness comes to
him when he is most helpless and awakens him,
refreshed, beginning to be made whole. Love takes him
by the hand, and opens to him the doors of another
life, another day.

(But he who has defended himself, fought for himself
in sickness, planned for himself, guarded himself, loved
himself alone and watched over his own life all night, is
killed at last by exhaustion. For him there is no newness.
Everything is stale and old.)

When the helpless one awakens strong as the voice of
mercy, it is as if Life his Sister, as if the Blessed Virgin,
(his own flesh, his own sister), as if Nature made wise
by God’s Art and Incarnation were to stand over him and
invite him with unutterable sweetness to be awake and to
live. This is what it means to recognize Hagia Sophia.

II. Early Morning. The Hour of Prime.

O blessed, silent one, who speaks everywhere!

We do not hear the soft voice, the gentle voice, the
merciful and feminine.

We do not hear mercy, or yielding love, or non-resistance,
or non-reprisal. In her there are no reasons and no answers.
Yet she is the candor of God’s light, the expression of His
simplicity.

We do not hear the uncomplaining pardon that bows
down the innocent visages of flowers to the dewy
earth. We do not see the Child who is prisoner in all
the people, and who says nothing. She smiles, for
though they have bound her, she cannot be a prisoner.
Not that she is strong, or clever, but simply that
she does not understand imprisonment.

The helpless one, abandoned to sweet sleep, him the
gentle one will awake: Sophia.

All that is sweet in her tenderness will speak to him
on all sides in everything, without ceasing, and he
will never be the same again. He will have awakened
not to conquest and dark pleasure but to the impeccable
pure simplicity of One consciousness in all and through all:
one Wisdom, one Child, one Meaning, one Sister.

The stars rejoice in their setting, and in the rising of
the Sun. The heavenly lights rejoice in the going
forth of one man to make a new world in the morning,
because he has come out of the confused primordial dark
night into consciousness. He has expressed the clear silence
of Sophia in his own heart. He has become eternal.

III. High Morning. The Hour of Tierce.

The Sun burns in the sky like the Face of God, but
we do not know his countenance as terrible. His light
is diffused in the air and the light of God is diffused
by Hagia Sophia.

We do not see the Blinding One in black emptiness.
He speaks to us gently in ten thousand things, in
which His light is one fullness and one Wisdom.
Thus He shines not on them but from within them.
Such is the loving-kindness of Wisdom.

All the perfections of created things are also in God;
and therefore He is at once Father and Mother. As
Father He stands in solitary might surrounded by
darkness. As Mother His shining is diffused, embracing
all His creatures with merciful tenderness and light.
The Diffuse Shining of God is Hagia Sophia.
We call her His “glory.” In Sophia His power is
experienced only as mercy and as love.

(When the recluses of fourteenth-century England
heard their Church Bells and looked out upon the
wolds and fens under a kind sky, they spoke in their
hearts to “Jesus our Mother.” It was Sophia that had
awakened in their childlike hearts.)

Perhaps in a certain very primitive aspect Sophia is
the unknown, the dark, the nameless Ousia. Perhaps
she is even the Divine Nature, One in Father, Son, and
Holy Ghost. And perhaps she is in infinite light unmanifest,
not even waiting to be known as Light. This I do not know.
Out of the silence Light is spoken. We do not hear it or see
it until it is spoken.

In the Nameless Beginning, without Beginning, was
the Light. We have not seen this Beginning. I do not know
where she is, in this Beginning. I do not speak of her as a
Beginning, but as a manifestation.

Now the Wisdom of God, Sophia, comes forth, reaching
from “end to end mightily.” She wills to be also
the unseen pivot of all nature, the center and significance
of all the light that is in all and for all. That which is poorest
and humblest, that which is most hidden in all things is
nevertheless most obvious in them, and quite manifest, for it
is their own self that stands before us, naked and without care.

Sophia, the feminine child, is playing in the world,
obvious and unseen, playing at all times before the Creator.
Her delights are to be with the children of men. She is their sister.
The core of life that exists in all things is tenderness, mercy, virginity
the Light, the Life considered as passive, as received, as given, as
taken, as inexhaustibly renewed by the Gift of God. Sophia is
Gift, is Spirit, Donum Dei. She is God-given and God
Himself as Gift. God as all, and God reduced to Nothing:
inexhaustible nothingness. Exinanivit semetipsum. Humility as
the source of unfailing light.

Hagia Sophia in all things is the Divine Light reflected in them,
considered as a spontaneous participation, as their invitation
to the Wedding Feast.

Sophia is God’s sharing of Himself with creatures. His outporing,
and the Love by which He is given, and known, held and loved.

She is in all things like the air receiving the sunlight. In her
they prosper. In her they glorigy God. In her they rejoice to reflect
Him. In her they are united with him. She is the union between them.
She is the Love that unites them. She is life as communion, life as
thanksgiving, life as praise, life as festival, life as glory.

Because she receives perfectly there is in her no stain.
She is love without blemish, and gratitude without
self-complacency. All things praise her by being themselves
and by sharing in the Wedding Feast. She is the Bride and the
Feast and the Wedding.

The feminine principle in the world is the inexhaustible source
of creative realizations of the Father’s glory. She is His
manifestation in radiant splendor! But she remains unseen,
glimpsed only by a few. Sometimes there are none who
know her at all.

Sophia is the mercy of God in us. She is the tenderness
with which the infinitely mysterious power of pardon
turns the darkness of our sins into the light of grace.
She is the inexhaustible fountain of kindness, and would
almost seem to be, in herself, all mercy. So she does in us
a greater work than that of Creation: the work of new being
in grace, the work of pardon, the work of transformation from
brightness to brightness tamquam a Domini Spiritu. She
is in us the yielding and tender counterpart of the power, justice
and creative dynamism of the Father.

IV. Sunset. The Hour of Compline. Salve Regina.

Now the Blessed Virgin Mary is the one created being
who enacts and shows forth in her life all that is hidden in Sophia.
Because of this she can be said to be a personal manifestation
of Sophia, Who in God is Ousia rather than Person.

Natura in Mary becomes pure Mother. In her, Natura
is as she was from the origin from her divine birth. In Mary Natura
is all wise and is manifested as an all-prudent, all-loving, all-pure person:
not a Creator, and not a Redeemer, but perfect Creature, perfectly
Redeemed, the fruit of all God’s great power, the perfect expression
of wisdom in mercy.

It is she, it is Mary, Sophia, who in sadness and joy, with the full awareness
of what she is doing, sets upon the Second Person, the Logos, a crown
which is His Human Nature. Thus her consent opens the door of created
nature, of time, of history, to the Word of God.

God enters into His creation. Through her wise answer, through her obedient
understanding, through the sweet yielding consent of Sophia, God enters
without publicity into the city of rapacious men.

She crowns Him not with what is glorious, but with
what is greater than glory: the one thing greater than
glory is weakness, nothingness, poverty.

She sends the infinitely Rich and Powerful One forth
as poor and helpless, in His mission of inexpressible
mercy, to die for us on the Cross.

The shadows fall. The stars appear. The birds begin to sleep.
Night embraces the silent half of the earth. A vagrant, a destitute
wanderer with dusty feet, finds his way down a new road. A
homeless God, lost in the night, without papers, without
identifications, without even a number, a frail expendable exile
lies down in desolation under the sweet stars of the world and
entrusts Himself to sleep.

ANDREI TARKOVSKY’S THE SACRIFICE (1986)

was dying as he made his final film, The Sacrifice(1986). It can be likened to the epic last testaments of Ludwig van Beethoven, Paul Gauguin, Gustav Mahler, Luigi Nono, John Huston, and . Tarkovsky dedicated the film to his son, Andrejusja, “with hope and confidence.” Like Mahler, Tarkovsky exits in a universal communication: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Despite the milieu of finality that permeates The Sacrifice, it was a narrative that had long been percolating with Tarkovsky, who referred to it as a parable, open to multifarious interpretations. It should be noted it wasn’t intended as a coda, as he was planning a film version of “The Flying Dutchman.” The Sacrifice literally owes itself to , whose company financed it. Aesthetically,  Tarkovsky also dips into Bergman’s landscape, shooting on the island of Faro, where the Swede—possibly Tarkovsky’s only peer—lived and shot several films.

The Sacrifice stars Erland Josephson (from Bergman’s Autumn Sonata and Fanny and Alexander) as Alexander. It is a kind of extension of his role of the self-immolating Domenico in Tarkovsky’s previous film, Nostalghia. Dreaming of a birthday apocalypse, Alexander, the aged atheist professor, offers himself up to God as The Sacrifice so that his family be will spared. The film ends in another form of madness and  immolation, the burning of Alexander’s house. Unfortunately, the first take was ruined, necessitating a costly rebuilding of the house and a second shoot.

Despite such dark themes and the tumor that was killing him, Tarkovsky’s wit is in full force. It is a testament to the filmmaker’s spirit and, yes, his defiance remains wet. He dares to bravely state his spiritual beliefs in a spiritually bankrupt, materialistic era. Penance in isolation and self-martyrdom are prevailing themes; and, despite the inherent humor, it is a magnificently difficult viewing, as Tarkovsky intended.

It’s doubtful that much of the contemporary movie audience, spoon-fed on the fallacy that film is merely entertainment, will mantle the patience required here, but that is a considerable loss of the rich rewards offered. The Sacrifice revels in its quaint magical mysticism, amiably weaving Tarkovsky’s personal Catholicism with a Kierkegaardian existentialism.

This is not an apocalypse born of mushroom clouds and bomb shelters, but rather of a small family on a Swedish island replete with Shakespeare, Ibsen, Leonardo’s unfinished “Adoration of the Magi,” and Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion,” along with a host of irregulars including an unfaithful wife, the pompous doctor she’s carrying on with, a daughter, a son (referred to as “Little Man”), an amusing necromantic bicycling mailman named Otto who loves his ghost stories, and a maid as sexual sacrifice for an Icelandic pagan fertility cult (echoing Andrei Rublev).

The dialogue is sparse and the camera work (by Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s cinematographer for The Magic Flute, Autumn Sonata, and Fanny and Alexander, among others) glides ponderously and memorably across the island terrain in stunning tracking shots; among the most memorable is the tree planting scene. At times, the film is almost inert and undeniably austere (the burning of that gorgeous house lasts almost seven minutes). Aptly, it’s one of the most challenging  and poignant of Tarkovsky’s oeuvre; a private annihilation.

*reprinted from 366 weird movies

ANDREI RUBLEV (1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (originally titled The Passion According to Andrei ) is a 1966 film about a painter whom we never see painting. Furthermore, it’s about a 15th century artist who we know very little about, not even the exact years of his birth and death. Only one existing painting, “The Trinity,” can be authenticated as being entirely painted by Rublev. Yes, Rublev is one of those uncouth religious painters: an iconographer. This is anathema here today—and, when it was made, most especially in his Russian homeland. Despite all that, Rublev is a painter of legendary status. As enigmatic as he is, a film about such a figure would seem to be a recipe for disaster. Someone forgot to advise Tarkovsky, because he not only produced the most substantive film to date about a historical painter, but also one of the most astonishing and vexing accomplishments in cinema.

Rublev, scripted by Andrey Konchalovskiy and Tarkovsky, had a “sky’s the limit” budget (the biggest Soviet budget since ). Its production swallowed up two years. Distribution proved to be an ideological purgatory, however, a politically complex and arduous endeavor. Along the way, it dawned on atheistic Soviet authorities that, as a film about a deeply religious painter directed by the starkly spiritual Tarkovsky, Rublev was an embarrassing reminder of Russia’s faith-contaminated past.

At a private screening, Moscow critics were incensed and demanded cuts. Tarkovsky conceded and trimmed the film from its original three-and-a-half hours to 186 minutes. Not satisfied, authorities demanded additional cuts, which Tarkovsky then refused. The film was cut without him, resulting in various running times, including  an 81 minute travesty. Still, not satisfied, producers sat on Rublev until 1969, when the Cannes Film Festival requested a screening. The USSR submitted the 186 minute cut and Rublev won the International Critics award, despite being pulled from the competition. Soviet authorities were enraged; Leonid Brezhnev stormed out of the showing. Unmoved by its critical accolades, bureaucrats kept Rublev shelved until 1971, when it became a critical and box office success in its homeland.

Andrei Rublev is more of an iconographic than a biographical essay, focusing on a spiritual and artistic struggle, which might be seen as an icon of  sorts for Tarkovsky himself. One is unlikely to encounter a more idiosyncratic and desultory odyssey in cinema. There is a quality about it that could be likened to the inflamed mysticism of Antonin Artaud. Tarkovsky’s mastery is in ample evidence from the enigmatic, tenebrous prologue; attempting to mount a hot-air balloon, a medieval daredevil provokes peasants who woozily chase after him, only to see his endeavor utterly fail when it crashes to the earth below. Cinematographer Vadim Yusov had his work cut out for him. He unquestionably triumphs when his cherubic camera pursues Heaven’s would-be gate crasher in a serpentine take.

The remainder of the film is grounded; and oh, is it grounded. Tarkovsky himself referred to it as a “film of the earth.” Unflinchingly brutal and oppressive, disheartening, experimental, bleak, saturated with nudity and bloodshed, it’s paradoxically intimate and epic; feverish and spiritually crepuscular; chaotic, and austere in its expansive silences; sublime in its depiction of sensual elements (mists, panoramic landscapes, rivers, the fire of candles, torches, and Rublev’s smoldering robe) and factitious symbols (bells, a white church, ladders, crucifixes). The film is equally haunting in its chimerical potpourri of beasts (the decaying corpse of a swan, snakes, birds, cats, geese, a herd of reindeer, and a striking black mare) and visually distressing sights (the pleating of a dead woman’s hair, unfathomable carnage, and extreme closeups of weathered Slavic faces).

When the ethereal Andrei Rublev () remains true to the purity of his art by rejecting a commissioned “Last Judgment,” he virtually dismantles his career and embarks upon a haphazard journey, accompanied by two monks. Along the way, we see the sufferings of peasants (in a memorable scene, a jester is manhandled) and exotic, undiluted paganism (the queerly ritualistic Saint John’s Eve) met with startling, heart-breaking violence.

Rublev’s journey is authentic, deprived of a destination, and largely plays out under an umbrella of the artist’s vow of silence, rendering Tarkovsky’s opus not so much a film as a poem scrawled through the ashes of a dilapidated fresco.

*reprinted from 366 Weird Movies

ROBERT BRESSON’S DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (1951)

cited Robert Bresson as one of two  filmmakers who influenced him (the other being ). Bresson has also been referred to as the most religious of filmmakers, and in some quarters, as the patron saint of cinema.

Although some have claimed Breton considered himself a Christian atheist, his statements, which echo tenets of process theology, contradicts that thesis. Likewise, Breton’s diminutive oeuvre is too mosaic for such a condensed assessment. His prevalent theme is an aesthetic Catholicism, which was shaped by religious upbringing, Jansenism, and a year spent as prisoner of war (an experience indirectly explored in 1956’s A Man Escaped).

Diary of a Country Priest, which was Breton’s first film in five years, is a masterful adaption of the novel by Catholic author Georges Bernanos. An unnamed young priest  (Claude Laydu, in his first role) arrives at the parish of Ambricourt. Pursuing a life of austere poverty and solemnity, he lives off stale bread, soaked in wine and sugar, along with potato soup. It is all he can hold down before vomiting blood, because, unknown to him, his stomach ailment is a cancer that is slowly killing him. The parishioners, unaccustomed to such piety in a priest coupled with his complete lack of social grace, quickly make him into an object of ridicule, spreading gossip about him being an alcoholic and mocking him as “the little priest.” Unwilling to defend himself against the falsehoods, the priest mantles a halo of interior martyrdom. Such is the seriousness of his calling. Adding to the poignancy is the heart-rending revelation that the priest’s parents were alcoholics. A sole parishioner attends mass, and the underlying spiritual upheaval is only inflamed by the priest carrying out his oppressively routine vocation. The turmoil of doubt spreads like the cancer rotting his intestine.

The priest begins a journal recording his struggle with his faith. His oncoming death transcends the physical, although there is that as well. The authenticity of the portrait is such that you can almost empathize with his parishioners. It’s no joy ride, and prefigures Mother Teresa’s journals, which a recall a similar, daunting experience. His priestly occupation is only an occasional effective retreat, and there is a haunting suspicion of the filmmaker engaging self-portraiture here. The result is arduous.

There  are parallels with ‘s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); both are akin to an expressionistic fugue. Both Dreyer’s Joan and Bresson’s cleric embody the notion of a holy calling as a second martyrdom. They willfully—like Christ—embark on a self-immolation, reminding us that this was the quintessential goal of early Christians. When historians note these films are the two most authentically Catholic works in cinema, they’re onto something.

*reprinted from 366 Weird Movies

CARL THEODORE DREYER’S DAY OF WRATH (1943)

‘s Day of Wrath (1943) is an undeniable masterpiece that should be required viewing. It’s bleak as hell; a kind of synthesis of Rembrandt and Nathanel Hawthorne filtered through a lens of wrenching pessimism. After viewing, you’re likely to break out in a sweat and be reduced to incoherent mumbling. If you’re brave enough to attempt a second viewing, wait twenty-five years. It’s that intense: the most somber opus in this unrelentingly somber filmmaker’s oeuvre.

As in virtually all of Dreyer’s work, Day of Wrath (the title is taken from the hymn “Das Irae,” used in requiem masses) highlights the director’s excruciating obsession with realism, and his paradoxical stylization. Set in the 17th century, Wrath‘s subject is the Danish church’s persecution of accused witches. Critics at the time noted  Dreyer’s unflinching comparison of the powerful Protestant Church with the Third Reich (Denmark had recently acquiesced to the Nazis). In The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Dreyer had previously held the English Catholic Church to accountability (although one must concede that he wasn’t entirely sympathetic with the saint either). Here, his lack of favoritism is equally unsparing. His grim eye for religious and political institutional thought soaks every pigment of every frame, but falls short of full-scale condemnation. His shrug at commercial filmmaking and its audience is proportionately tenacious. In daring to produce films of authentic spirituality, he appeals to no brand of atheism—be it religious or cinematic atheism.

In approaching Day of Wrath, holster all naive notions of hope. There is none to be had, except for a sensuous sliver in the form of Lisbeth Movin as Anne, the second wife of Rev. Absalon (Thorkild Roose). For the sin of youthful earthiness, the poor woman is inherently doomed.

The superlative early sequences focus on the old woman Marthe (Anna Svierkier), an accused, tortured witch who believes she can blackmail Absalon into interceding to save her from the stake. Anne, who sympathizes with Marthe, is the daughter of a witch, one whom Absalon hypocritically protected to secure the arranged marriage. Complicating the loveless union is Anne’s  love for Absalon’s son Martin (Preben Lerdoff Rye) who is closer to her age. Intensifying the already oppressive milieu is Absalon’s mother, the sadistic and jealous Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), who hated Anne’s mother and now equally despises her daughter-in-law.

With Anne clearly more a trophy than a beloved, Absalon fails to heed Marthe’s threat, and relinquishes the old woman to the stake. The scene is excruciating to watch and, as he had Maria Falconetti in Joan of Arc, so Dreyer again puts an actor through extreme physical discomfort to solicit the right degree of suffering. Perversely choreographed to an ominous hymn, it climaxes with the dying Marthe placing a curse on Absalon and Anne.

What follows may or may not be the aftermath of that curse. Wisely, Dreyer leaves that decision to the viewer. Ordinary people lose their humanity in subscribing to the fears and platitudes of religiosity and the status quo. Even Anne becomes unsympathetic when she sets the wheels of Absalon’s comeuppance in motion. Rather than being freed after the Lutheran pastor’s death, Anne is betrayed by the weak Martin and denounced as a witch by Merete. Like Melisande, Anne becomes purified by accepting her fate.

Strikingly photographed by Karl Andersson, the black and white chiaroscuro further intensifies an almost unbearable experience. For contemporary viewers, the unrelentingly static pacing of Day of Wrath may prove a challenge. Yet, it is unquestionably the most powerful film to date on its subject.

*reprinted from 366 Weird Movies

IN HONOR OF THOMAS MERTON’S 100TH BIRTHDAY: AN EXCERPT FROM “JUSTIFICATION BY IMAGINATION.” BY ALFRED EAKER

January 31st is the 100th birthday of Thomas Merton. In honor of his centenary, the following is an excerpt from my Master’s Thesis: Justification By Imagination: The Marian  Art Of Thomas Merton. 

The thesis was approved by Drs. Frank Burch Brown, Marti Steussy, and Lorna Shoemaker.

 

Introduction: Opening Merton

 

It is, perhaps, apt that Thomas Merton’s Marian art is primarily concealed—much as the Marian figure is in the gospels. The bulk of Merton’s Marian drawings reside at the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. Little of that art has been published. To approach it, one must first open Merton: “One hears from others that this is a Sacred Book, takes their word for it, and resolves not to get involved.”[1] Thomas Merton’s own words on the act of opening the Bible can be applied similarly to opening Merton. Over one hundred books and several documentary films have been produced about Thomas Merton since his death in 1968, indicating the extent of his art and influence. The magnitude and immensity of Merton is such that no single interpretation will have the final word on the famed Trappist, whose status as the preeminent Christian monk of the twentieth century, is readily acknowledged, even by his critics. Continue reading

MARY AND THE CATHOLIC IMAGINATION: AN IMAGINATIVE GEM

A sublime manifesto. Brief, but no mere trifle. Simultaneously lucid and poetic, Wendy M. Wright’s “Mary and the Catholic Imagination” dips its pen into a desperately needed Sophiastic inkwell.

An excerpt from her introduction:

“I encountered the fascinatingly polymorphous religious symbol and touchingly intimate presence who answers to the name of Mary…She occupies a generous space in the hearts of those who speak tom look to, identify with, implore, honor, and hope in her. In a conceptual world in which sacred presence is powerfully sensed, she is among those presences most poignantly and deeply felt.”

That last line could just as well be applied to this book, a multifaceted, diaphanous gem amongst seemingly countless essays. Wright invites us to cling for dear life to Her image, opening us to “the breath of the spirit to hear the whisper of mercy and conceive of justice in a world where it does not exist.”

This is no touchy feely, Stuart Smalley type of meditation, but a profound, imaginative work of art, which may feed those willing to partake.