Letting God Be Found

Our Faith is rich in examples of God’s presence: in Scripture, in the lives of the Saints, in Creation itself – and most concretely in the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), which are tangible encounters with the living God. Regardless of such riches, we want more. We want proof, whatever that means. Many, many years ago I made my very first retreat, and I was in the midst of a conversion of heart in which my faith was being renewed. Woman after woman at the retreat testified to powerful moments in which the Lord “spoke” to them, (sometimes “leading” them to a particular Scripture verse) and I was amazed, and intimidated. During discussion time, I shared with my small group that I’d never heard from God. Ever. The women smiled and assured me God speaks to me, even as I insisted He doesn’t. Their looks of motherly concern didn’t inspire confidence as one of them said, “I’m sure He will. Someday.” I’m convinced this is a common concern – and complaint – even among the most faithful. We “want God,” and we want Him here and now! The trouble is, we want Him on our terms, and most times we’re not really sure what those terms should look like.

On January 6, Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Christians celebrate the Theophany of Our Lord, a wonderful companion to the West’s feast of Epiphany. Through these feasts the Church reminds us that the Child born in Bethlehem became the Man from Nazareth, and was revealed to be the Son of God. He is Emmanuel, God with us, living – and suffering – with us and for us. The Word made flesh not only dwells among us, but is one of us. He is close to us, yet often we don’t recognize Him, don’t acknowledge Him, or don’t look for Him. That’s why these feasts of “revelation” are so important for us.

God reveals Himself in the ordinary: in the midst of family life and all of its attendant joys and worries; in our daily work and its satisfaction and hardships; and in any number of unexpected ways that surprise us in their subtlety. The problem is that we keep looking for God in the booming voice, the Burning Bush and the miraculous appearance. The truth is, He does reveal Himself in those ways, but more often He shows Himself to us in quietly, and in the ordinary. That is what’s so extraordinary about the Incarnation, and why so many people 2,000 years ago (and many today) find it hard to believe that God would enter into His own Creation as a man.  Maybe that’s why the “proofs” we look for of God’s existence in our lives aren’t there – or don’t appear to be there. We’re looking in the wrong places, and we let other voices drown out His. This is what I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, especially during Advent and the Nativity, and this current feast of Theophany: where is God, and am I looking and listening for Him?

I love the icon of the Nativity of Jesus Christ in my parish of St. Ann’s Byzantine Catholic Church. In Eastern iconography the Nativity is portrayed differently from the serene, “Christmas carol” scenes in Western art (for more on the icon’s symbolism, read what I wrote in 2014). There is one aspect of the icon I found myself drawn to during this Christmas season, and it’s the two characters at the lower left (closeup left.) The icon portrays a pensive, perhaps anxious Joseph being visited by a strange looking fellow in a cloak that appears to be made of leaves. He holds a walking staff and seems to be speaking to the new father about serious matters. According to the iconographic “language,” the man is actually the Devil come to the cave after Christ’s birth to instill doubt in Joseph’s heart. Of course this part of the scene isn’t Scriptural, but it’s a symbolic way to show how determined the Devil is to introduce doubt in our thoughts: doubts about ourselves, and doubts about God’s love for us. The Devil wants us to believe that God is really far removed from us, and not as close as the Baby in the manger who allowed Himself to become small enough to be held; small enough to be contained in a particle of bread and a cup of wine. It really doesn’t matter what the Old Man is telling Joseph in the icon, because we hear the arguments against God that he presents to each of us. We all have our own anxiety upon which the Devil plays and which he uses try to lead us into sin. As I sat in my pew each week, I thought a lot about that Old Man in the icon, and how often I allow him to highjack my thoughts; how many times I believe his arguments against God’s real presence in my life. It’s that nagging feeling I experienced on retreat many years ago: God doesn’t speak to me.

The icon of the Theophany of Our Lord (right) in my parish covers a portion of the wall immediately to the left of the Nativity as you face it, and I found myself drawn to it many times over these last weeks, as if the Lord were purposely diverting my attention away from the Old Man. This icon is one of my favorites, as is the feast. Theophany is a Greek word that means manifestation of God, and this feast commemorates the revelation of God as a Communion of Persons – the Trinity – and that this Jesus (born in a cave, raised in a family, and now presenting Himself for baptism) is the Son of God. The last thing anyone who was gathered at the Jordan that day expected was for God to enter into their midst. No one expected to hear His voice or witness His Spirit. No one would have believed a small town boy, the carpenter’s son, was the Messiah, let alone God Himself. As He would many times during the life and ministry of Jesus, God offered the people the “proof” they desired with His proclamation, “This is my beloved Son….” Yet such wondrous “proofs” are not greater than the reality: that God is among us, that He loves us more than we can imagine, and that He desires to be close to us.

It turns out the women on my first retreat were right: God would speak to me. In fact, He speaks to me all the time, but sometimes I’m too busy or distracted, or too unimaginative to hear Him. The icons of the Nativity and Theophany remind me again of how important it is to look for God and His word for me in the everyday aspects of my life. He’s there in my family, in my work, and in the simple things. He speaks in Creation, in music and books – and in the words friends and enemies alike. God is with us everyday and in everything. It’s up to us to be still, be humble, and be aware of the unexpected ways He manifests Himself in our lives.

…[T]oday the Uncreated One willingly permits the hands of his creatures to be laid upon him; today the Prophet and Forerunner approaches the Lord and, standing before him in awe,  witnesses the condescension of God towards us; today through the presence of the Lord, the waters of the river Jordan are changed into remedies; today the whole universe is refreshed with mystical streams; today the sins of the human race are blotted out by the waters of the river Jordan; today paradise has been opened to all, and the Sun of Righteousness has shone upon us; today, at the hands of Moses, the bitter water is changed into sweetness by the presence of the Lord!

~ The Great Blessing of Water, Feast of Theophany

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Rights, duties, and freedom

Carol Reed’s classic film The Third Man, based on a story by Graham Greene, takes place in post-war Vienna where Harry Lime is operating a criminal scheme involving tainted medicine. Lime kills sick people for money.

Money. We all need it, some of us have enough of it, and many don’t. Franklin Roosevelt wanted America to recognize that, beyond the basics enumerated in the Bill of Rights, human beings also have the right to a decent home, security in old age and sickness, and the right to health care and an education. In other words, one’s civil rights need to be augmented by economic rights. Roosevelt’s New Deal was influenced by Father John Ryan, whose tireless efforts for working men and women stands today as an important milestone in the American Catholic social justice tradition. Pope Pius XI recognized his contribution by making him a domestic prelate (a sort of honorary bishop).

But where there are rights, there must also be duties. Your right is my obligation to respect and, according to my situation, provide for that right, and vice versa. My taxes, for example, help pay for Medicaid. Politicians devoted to the individualist philosophy of Ayn Rand disagree and want to reduce the scope of rights, in the famous phrase of Thomas Hobbes, simply to freedom from force and fraud. As for economic security, you’re on your own.

The Christian social justice tradition, however, holds that without a minimum of financial resources, one is inevitably the victim of force. Those who view social justice merely as the freedom of the individual from constraints, with no duty to support the common good, are not that different from Harry Lime, who cheated sick patients out of wholesome medicine to enrich himself. Harry Lime took the direct and illegal route to riches by diluting medicine; today, it is more common to find corporate plunder occurring through legal channels (see, for example, the BBC report, “Pharmaceutical industry gets high on fat profits”.

We are still trying to figure out how society can fairly distribute its wealth so that everyone’s freedom will be enhanced. Movie producers put up an investment so that the artists and laborers can be paid for the work they do. Alexander Korda was the producer for The Third Man and the great showman Orson Welles played the villain Harry Lime. The tension between the artists and laborers who make the film, and the producers who supply the funds is, of course, legendary. Producers want their investment to make money for them while the artists want the financial freedom to create. On the set of Reed’s film, this tension evoked a bon mot from Welles, who told Korda, “I wish the Pope had made you a Cardinal.” “Why is that?” Korda asked. “Because then we would only have to kiss your ring,” Welles answered.

There is a sense in which every human being is a creative artist, intended by God to make something of himself or herself, according to the gifts and circumstances of life. Everyone, therefore, needs the financial basics to achieve the creation that is one’s authentic self, free not only from force and fraud, but from poverty, homelessness and preventable illness. Our kiss should be that of genuinely free men and women.

David Hammond teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

The Alpha and the Omega

“’I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was
and who is to come, the Almighty [pantocrator]” (Rev. 1:8).

 “You judge your people with righteousness and new life abounds.”
Prayer of Dedication by Rev. James G. Kirk

This past February my husband and I spent two weeks in Sicily. Our “home base” for that time was stunning Cefalú on the northern coast, with its famous Norman cathedral built in 1131, commissioned by King Roger II. In the cathedral’s apse is one of the most famous mosaic icons of Christ Pantocrator. “Pantocrator” can be translated as “Ruler” or “Sustainer” of all, an idea that, if you peruse the internet quickly, you will see described as an apt image, borrowed from imperial Rome, for an imperial church. It is sometimes even translated as “king.”

But this Easter I’d like to propose that following Jesus, even as a king, is somewhat more complex than most Wikipedia articles and travel guidebooks suggest, and one way we can be certain of that is the widespread popularity through the ages of the Christ Pantocrator image. To put it more personally, I might be the Christian least likely to be attracted by empire in any place or in any form, so I don’t think that’s the reason I felt drawn to stop in to visit that Christ Pantocrator twice a day. I would guess it has been the same for other Christians who have been drawn to that image, either in Cefalú or many other places, throughout the Christian world.

Even a brief gaze at the icon begins to reveal its complexity. The Christ in Pantocrator images carry a book of scripture in his left hand. I am not an expert in icons, but I understand that if the book is closed, the image is technically a Pantocrator, and if the book is open to reveal a passage of scripture, as in Cefalú, the image is a slight variant usually called “Christ the Teacher.” Therein lies the beginning of the depth of the image in Cefalú: is this Christ merely the image of conquering Norman power in religious dress, or is he more? And if he is more, then what does he have to teach?

So Pantocrator sometimes translates as “king”. But what if the point of using it, like the imperial titles and slogans that are applied to Christ throughout the New Testament (“savior,” “prince of peace,” and so on), is to subvert imperial pretensions?  When we hear phrases like “all things,” we tend to think “all things human.” But the phrase is repeated enough in the scriptural witness that I do think it means all things. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:15-17). Aside from a line or two in Virgil, even the masterful propagandists of Augustus dared not make such claims.

How do we, limited as our horizons are, even begin to consider this idea that “in him all things hold together”? In Cefalú, the book Jesus carries is open to the Gospel of John 8:12, which reads in both Greek and Latin: “I am the light of the world, who follows me will not wander in darkness but will have the light of life.” A lock of Jesus’ hair is being gently blown across his forehead. The better guidebooks will point out this realistic detail as one of the great artistic triumphs of this particular image, and indeed it is dazzlingly that.

But the lock of hair and the passage from John reminded me that light often represents the gentle presence of God but it rarely gets the credit that Elijah’s moving “gentle breeze” does. Both images suggest an all-encompassing and ever-present reality of God’s sustaining love to which we often choose not to attend and yet most of us wish to experience as fully as possible. Some have recently found the appreciation of the cosmic Christ in the everyday expressed poignantly in what is now referred to collectively as the Celtic tradition. In a meditation on an Easter pilgrimage she took in Wales, Rev. Mary Earle tells us that

[i]n Welsh, the ordinary word for universe is “bydysawd,” which means “that which is baptized.” All that has come into being—every particle of matter, every creature, every person, every star and planet—is encompassed in the pattern of Christ’s dying and rising…The Celtic Church, following the teachings of the early councils of the church, understood that this all-encompassing, uncreated Light of Christ, the Light that breaks into the tombs of our hearts and the graves of our bodies, is eternally present in all times and in all places.

I expect this is what the image of our Pantocrator meant all along to those not looking through eyes and hearts desiring dominance, a deeply benevolent sustainer of all who loves so much as to join us in darkness and help us find the gentle light in all. That is a far cry from the “peace through victory” that is a maxim of any form of empire. I once heard Daniel Berrigan say, in response to a question that was desperate with the desire for the United States always to win in all ways and at any violent cost, “Maybe we just need to change our idea of what winning means.” That sentence changed the course of my life, because I suddenly understood that domination is never true power, not at all related to God’s power.

So now I see this Christ Pantocrator with the blowing lock of hair and the words of light ruling more like the Celtic St. Melangell. The sixth century Irish princess fled her father and his plans for her marriage, becoming a hermit in Wales. She was given land for a monastery, as the story goes, by a prince who found her sheltering under her robe the rabbit he and his hounds were hunting.

So maybe it’s time to stop rolling our collective Catholic eyes at rabbits as a “pagan” Easter symbol (mea culpa). Maybe care for the most vulnerable creatures and recognition of our oneness with them—created by God for himself and from his love and redeemed together with all creation—is in fact at the heart of Christ’s resurrection and rule. And perhaps the righteous judgment that comes from our great Pantocrator is the ever-flowing gift of new life, even when we can’t quite discern either the light or the life in a particular situation. The Pantocrator images represent the constancy of God’s gentle sustenance, symbolized especially in this annual feast of Easter.

At the end of their pilgrimage, Rev. Earle writes that the pilgrims were given a poem by the Welsh poet, Saunders Lewis, one of my own favorites. They are lines which can serve as a daily reminder to stay attentive to the Uncreated Light who sustains all:

Cherish the dark’s obscurity
Look for the diamonds in debris,
Thank God for all His mystery

Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture and spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Easter Changes Everything

Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen!

Alithos Anesti! Truly, He is Risen!

I have the distinctive pleasure of being paid to lead a class of students in reading the Great Books of the Western literary canon. I know, I know. It’s a dirty job, etc., etc. One text which I relish covering with the undergraduates is Dante’s Inferno and, while mediating upon what to share with you this Easter day, I was reminded of a particular scene from that work, the greatest of Christian poems.

Early in the Inferno, Dante the pilgrim and his guide, the Latin poet Virgil, arrive at the latter’s “permanent address,” Limbo. Limbo is described as the eternal residence of those

Dante & Virgil in Limbo, the “beautiful school” of the Classical Poets Gustave Doré (1832-83)

Dante & Virgil in Limbo, the “beautiful school” of the Classical Poets (Gustave Doré, 1832-83)

souls who, while on earth, did not sin but lacked baptism, “the door to the faith” (Inf. 4.36). While he is there, Dante spies the souls of many famous men and women from classical history and myth, such as Electra, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The existence of these non-baptized noble souls is not one of judgment, let alone torture. They live amid a cool and verdant meadow, high and bathed in light, resembling the enclosure to an open courtyard. While to the eye this place is one of beauty, to the ear it is far less so. What one hears upon entering this lush and pleasant pasture are sighs “of sorrow without torments” (Inf. 4.28). Though the pilgrim finds himself amid a collection of the greatest poets from classical antiquity, i.e., Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and his own guide Virgil, there is no singing in Limbo, no music. The souls in Limbo have lost something for which the scenery cannot compensate: hope.

What Dante the poet is trying to bring to life for us is an entirely and completely natural world, a world of nature without grace. As St. Thomas reminds us, the perfection of our natural desires cannot be fulfilled by natural ends alone. The human person is directed to an end which is beyond his/her capacity to achieve without assistance. Since eternal life with God is the end to which we are called and for which we were made, it is God who must do the assisting. Without God’s help, the best that human nature, and the entire created world, can offer is still not enough to satisfy our deepest desires and longings. To quote another famous theologian saint: “Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee” (August. Conf. 1.1). The scene which Dante has brought to life for us, therefore, is one which depicts the world without grace. At best, creation can be quite attractive and even beautiful. But without the gift of grace, the most stunning botanical courtyard can seem like a prison.

While in Limbo, Dante the pilgrim asks Virgil if any of the souls residing there have ever left it for eternal beatitude. Virgil (70-19 B.C.E.) states that he was newly arrived when he witnessed the coming of the LORD “with the sign of the victory crown” (Inf. 4.54). That to which Virgil is alluding is the Christian doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell. The Latin poet states that after Good Friday, Christ “made blessed” (Inf. 4.62) the souls of the OT patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets and kings. Unlike the Gentile non-baptized residents of Limbo, these souls were the recipients of God’s covenant and, while on earth, lived in the hope that God would fulfill his promises to Israel. Just as the permanent residents of Limbo lived without hope on earth and thus continue to do so in the afterlife, so too the transient residents of Limbo lived in hope on earth and continued to do so in the afterlife. The event which fulfilled their hope, and brought about the attainment of their deepest desires, was the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of Christ inaugurates a new creation. Jesus’ resurrection is the “first-fruit” (1 Cor 15:20, 23), a sign of the things to come which have begun in him. In being joined to Christ, we too become new creations or, as St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes, after baptism “you are properly called Christs” (Catechetical Lectures 21.1). In being united to Christ, we become by adoption what he is by nature; i.e., sons and daughters of the Father.


The Church of the Holy Savior in Chora (Istanbul, Turkey)

In the Eastern Christian tradition, the artistic representation of the mystery Christ’s resurrection is not a glorified Christ standing next to an empty tomb. Rather, the Resurrection (Anastasis) Icon depicts the Harrowing of Hell. In this image, the glorified Christ is seen clutching the hands of Adam and Eve, who represent all of humanity. At Jesus’ feet are the “doors of Hell,” which he has burst open, and those objects scattered on the ground are shrapnel from the metalwork of the doors. One might interpret them as those tiny but infinitely-numbered little things we do every day which keep Jesus out of our lives. In addition, at Jesus’ feet also lays what looks like a corpse. This, of course, is death itself, which Christ has conquered and destroyed (cf. 1 Cor 15). The figures in the background on either side of Christ are the souls of those whom he has come to redeem. On the left, St. John the Baptist (the Forerunner) is closest to Jesus, and behind him are those OT kings who predicted the coming of the Savior: David (in the Psalms) and Solomon (in the Book of Wisdom). On right side are those patriarchs and prophets who lived in hope of God’s redemption, but predicted or prefigured Christ’s coming more obliquely: Abel, Moses, etc.

What these poetic and artistic representations, as well as the doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell itself, should help us to recall is both our need for God’s grace and God’s most abounding love in providing it to us. It was not cheap. The price was the life of His only-begotten Son. But for those united to Christ by the grace which he has won for us, everything is changed. By grace, our human nature has been raised from sin and death. By grace, we can affirm, with Fr. Hopkins, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” By grace, we have become adopted sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. The Paschal Triduum is not just the re-presentation of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is also the story of our salvation. In short, Easter changes everything.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.



I am very glad to be posting on this day, the first Sunday of Advent, because it affords me the opportunity to meditate on a theme which one seldom hears preached from the ambo but upon which our very salvation rests! This theme, of course, is Christ’s return (parousia) in judgment over the living and the dead on the last day (eschaton).

ChristMost Christians, and many non-Christians for that matter, could easily identify Jesus’ resurrection is the central belief of Christianity. In fact, it is only in the light of Christ’s resurrection that other Christian dogmas, such as the Trinity and Incarnation, can be seen as revealed truths. But what is often obscure is the meaning of Christ’s resurrection for us. Jesus’ resurrection is the “first fruit,” i.e., the sign and the promise, of the transformation that awaits all of creation (cf. 1 Cor 15:23-24). To put it plainly: a heaven of disembodied spirits is not our ultimate destination. Our ultimate destination, what we hope for, is the transformation of the entire cosmos, God’s Kingdom on earth, and our own resurrection into eternal life.

The celebration of Christ’s first coming at Christmas ought, therefore, to make us “groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). Just as at the birth of an earthly prince, an heir to the throne, we might anticipate the time when he finally rules over his kingdom, so too do we anticipate at Christmas the time when Christ’s Kingship (last Sunday) will be manifest “on earth as in heaven” (Mt 6:10). The Preface Prayer from today’s Mass reminds us that this is the fulfillment our hope.

For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh,

and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago,

and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, that,

when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest,

we who watch for the day may inherit the great promise in which we now dare to hope.

One might say that our very lives while here on earth are preparation for the Kingdom. Jesus’ own Gospel proclamation announced its arrival. “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15; cf. Mt 3:2). Jesus’ life, his teachings, and the grace which he bestows upon us through the sacraments of the Church, are all preparations for this Kingdom; a Kingdom which will only be consummated at his return. In this regard, all Christians are called to be Echatological Christians; that is, Christians who pray and long for Christ’s return. We are all called, with St. Paul, to pray “Marana tha” (1 Cor 16:22), which means “Our Lord, come,” or, as elsewhere in the NT, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).

Sistine ChapelThus, perhaps for reflection on this First Sunday of Advent, we ought to ask ourselves: Do I pray for the coming of the Lord or would I prefer that he take his time in returning? Have the goods of this world captured my imagination so that, in my everyday life, I have made them ends in themselves rather than means to my salvation? Do I live St. Paul’s exhortation to “not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of [my] mind” (Rom 12:2). Will the Master of the house arrive and find me sleeping, at rest with the comfortable life I have made for myself? In today’s Gospel Christ reminds all of us to be prepared for his return at any and every moment. “Watch!” (Mk 13:37).

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

 Don’t miss Saint Joseph’s College Online faculty (and blogger!) Susan Timoney presenting a webinar through the Catholic Apostolate Center on December 2. Click here for details!


tender-merciesFor this short reflection on the power of film images to convey meaningful theological messages, we will use as our primary example a film that has often passed by general notice—“Tender Mercies” [1983, screenplay by Horton Foote, directed by Bruce Beresford, starring Robert Duvall, supported by Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, Ellen Barkin, Wilford Brimley, and Lenny von Dohlen].  The film did garner recognition from the film community, winning two Academy Awards, one for Best Actor for Robert Duvall, and one for Best Original Screenplay.  Despite the fact that the general public is not familiar with this title, individuals working in the area of “Faith and Film” have used it as a prime example of the successful exploration of theological themes on the big screen.  For example, Sr. Rose Pacatte, has included it in her three volume work that links contemporary film to the three year cycle of liturgical readings, “Lights, Camera, Action”.  Then there is the work by Roy Anker, “Catching Light,” that focuses on a more select series of 13 films with a substantial chapter on each. Somewhat unusual among American films, “Tender Mercies” does not condescend the simple faith of a Texas Baptist woman.

This is a great film to use as an introduction to film study because of its tightly focused structure. The Hollywood distractions and clutter have all been eliminated.  What remains is an austere, spare, and unrelenting examination of dissolution and recreation/ death and resurrection.  Every small detail, from the signage for the small motel run by the young widow and her small son—to the condition of the barren fields engulfing the three main characters is meant to reinforce the theme of the transformation of spirit.

The name of the motel (announced by a bright red sign) is the Mariposa Motel.  There are several times when the film director does a full frame close-up shot of this sign—with no supporting dialogue or comment from the film’s cast.  The sign is an embedded message that the viewer is meant to unlock.  With this in mind, when the word “mariposa” is translated into English, the director’s intent becomes clearer.  Mariposa is the butterfly that has emerged from the apparent death and darkness of the “cocoon” into the realm of freedom of movement in the light–thus referencing a significant Christian symbol of transformation.

A second way that the visuals reinforce this theme of coming to fruition is in the twin “garden scenes” that are part of both the opening and closing sequences of the film.  The spring garden denotes the fragile planting of a new lifestyle, whereas the fall garden bespeaks a coming to ripeness, a harvest of the spirit.  Interestingly, the whole film was shot in four weeks in November.  Both the spring and late summer time frames were created by movie magic (before the use of CG design) and the time span was meant to indicate and underline the process of the spiritual growth of the gardeners.  This is one film where the extra features such as the conversation with the film director lead to a much more intricate vision than what appears to be a very simple storyline.

Enjoy the adventure of the Mariposa.

MaryAnn Sheridan teaches world religions for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Master of Suspense or Master of Mystery?

VertigoAll Hallows Eve and All Saints often get me thinking about two things: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and a sermon preached by John Henry Newman at Oxford in 1832.

I can’t recount the elaborate plot of Vertigo here, and if you have deprived yourself of the pleasure of watching this masterpiece until now, I suggest you run—don’t walk—to your nearest library to borrow it. What’s that you say? You can stream it? All the better—sit down and watch it now, then come back and read my reflections on it.

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So, you’re back. I’ll bet you’re feeling as Scottie did when he was told of the possession of Gavin Elster’s wife by the ghost of her suicidal ancestor. You need a drink too, don’t you?

At the start, Vertigo seems to be a story about the living possessed by the spirit of the dead and an ex-policeman, a “hard-headed Scot,” who is hired as a private detective to solve the “mystery” of this possession. But unlike the usual formula of the detective story, in this film the mystery remains after the problem is solved. Scottie Ferguson, the protagonist in the film, follows a painful journey of self-discovery in which he must die to his old, pragmatic ego, the self that thinks that everything in life is explainable. “There’s an answer for everything,” he says. Scottie suffers from vertigo and wants to cure himself of this mundane fear of heights. He doesn’t believe Elster’s “mystery” when he first hears it, and of course on one level, that is correct—the story is a fraud. Elster sets up the interpretation that “the other dimension” possesses his wife. The rational Scottie doesn’t buy it. Yet, even though it’s a set-up, there is a deeper truth—a mystery—greater than what Elster or anyone else knows. It goes beyond Ferguson’s profane, purely pragmatic and rationalist mind.

Philosophers such as Gabriel Marcel have distinguished between problem and mystery. Problems have solutions that leave no mystery. What we sometimes call “mystery stories” are really whodunits that are merely problems to be solved. But mystery remains, not as a problem to be solved but as the holy mystery that is God, to be worshipped. Was Hitchcock a master of suspense or master of mystery? I think Vertigo show him to be dealing with mystery.

Scottie lives within a horizon that has been disenchanted. Like the fear of heights he didn’t know he had, the whole film is the challenge of his facing up to his own mystery. Elster’s fraud serves to bring out a side of the pragmatic Scottie that he’s been denying; as the hard-headed Scot, he wants to explain away his own mystery. He thinks he can conquer himself by sheer intellect and will: “if I could just find the key and put it all together.” In the end, we do not know whether he accepts the fact that reason does not evacuate life’s ultimate mystery. Whether he will die to his old self to become a new creation is left unanswered but what seems clear is that by the end of the film, Hitch has exposed Scottie’s pragmatic denial of mystery as self-destructive and vain. The film demythologizes an evil scheme but deepens the sense of mystery.

And that’s why I think of Newman when I see this movie. In the sermon “On Justice, as a Principle of Divine Governance” he argues that pagan superstition—the kind of thing that we associate with Halloween—should not be seen as demonic or evil but as the quite reasonable response to the human condition of those lacking the gospel. “They who are not superstitious without the Gospel,” Newman tells us, “will not be religious with it: and I would that even in us, who have the Gospel, there were more of superstition than there is; for much is it to be feared that our security about ourselves arises from defect in self-knowledge rather than in fulness of faith…” Scottie’s reductionist rationalism—just the opposite of superstition—is a “defect in self-knowledge.” He is a man who has lost control of himself—in love, then in depression, then in anger. For Newman, it is better to be superstitious than to imagine that we live in a disenchanted universe. Reason without faith in the holy mystery is a fearful self-deception.

David Hammond teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Reflections: On the Waterfront

Won 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director=Elia Kazan, Best Actor=Marlon Brando, Best Supporting Actor=Karl Malden, Best Story and Screenplay=Bud Shulberg. Musical Score by Leonard Bernstein

As a follow-up to Labor Day, and to prevent us from being piously maudlin about it, it might be appropriate to consider On the Waterfront, which the American Film Institute considers the 8th greatest American movie, and which is included on the Vatican’s list of 45 greatest films.

Karl Malden and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront

Karl Malden and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront is a stirring film about justice in the workplace and about liberation from oppression. It is certainly more than just a period piece about the late 40’s. It is built around the life of Fr. John Corridan, S.J., a labor priest played by Karl Malden. Marlon Brando plays the main character, Terry Malloy, a down and out ex-prize fighter and corruption’s accomplice who turns to struggle against union corruption along the New York waterfront. Malloy’s battle takes him all the way to the witness stand, where he finds himself testifying against corrupt union leaders. The film ends with Malloy being brutally beaten, but nonetheless leading the longshoremen in a way of the cross to unload a ship, victorious over the corrupt union bosses. In real life, however, there was no such victory.

The film was director’s Elia Kazan’s response to his own decision to turn in the names of his Hollywood contemporaries during Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communism hearings. He features Terry Malloy as the justified informer. Malloy’s conscience awakens to the stark reality of union corruption. Malloy is influenced by Fr. Barry’s powerful sermon applying belief in the Church as the mystical Body of Christ. It is Christ who has just died again in a slain longshoreman. “Boys, this is my Church. And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you got another guess coming.!” In John May’s view, Malloy is a Christ figure through whom, as we experience his suffering, we experience resurrection. Think of Malloy’s girlfriend, Edie, as a “Beatrice” who leads him through hell and purgatory.

An estranged friend of Kazan and Shulberg’s, Arthur Miller, presents the same political milieu of the early 1950’s as a time of hysteria in The Crucible. Only the fact that Marlon Brando agreed to play the lead enabled the film to be produced at all since the Hollywood community was blacklisting Elia Kazan. Blacklists were working several different ways. The script was turned down by 8 Hollywood studios. Another film to compare On the Waterfront to is John Ford’s The Informer with its incredible final words: “she forgives me.”

Question: should not Kazan and Shulberg have ended the film with Malloy’s death? On his deathbed, Fr. Corriden, who was the special advisor on the set, said that during the filming of the entire film there was an indescribable feeling among those present that a curious force was helping to direct the film. When the film was shown to longshoremen, the one thing they said that did not ring true was that not one of them would have thrown garbage at a priest!

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

Ancient Faith – Contemporary Devotion

For me, ancient faith and contemporary devotion pair beautifully on this upcoming Feast of the Assumption of Mary.

For some, the Assumption of Our Lady is a difficult theological notion to understand. As catechists, it is important for us to be faithful to the doctrine without overwhelming the student. That reminds me of this little story…

The pastor was quizzing the third grade. “Can anyone tell me what the Assumption is?” An enthusiastic little boy raised his hand. Encouraged, Father called on him, “What can you tell us, young man?” The little boy stood and proudly announced, “Mary was Jesus’ Mother and we assume she went to heaven.” Now, as cute and humorous as that is, it doesn’t sufficiently address or define the mystery of the Assumption of Mary.

Among the Marian doctrines, the dogma of the Assumption stands with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as a kind of contrast of balance and scope of God’s power and goodness in His loving regard for the human condition. By that I mean that in the Immaculate Conception, we see that God has intervened in human history with a miracle that has an essentially spiritual core, that is, sin and the efficaciousness of God’s mercy/grace. Mary is preserved from sin from the moment of her conception “in view of the merits of her Divine Son”, as the definition of the doctrine proclaims. On the other hand, the mystery of the Assumption is a miracle whose core is a physical reality. Her body and soul are the locus of God’s grace and power. Since no one could bear the idea that Mary died, or worse, decayed after death, the commonly held and persistent faith of the people has been that God took the Blessed Mother to Himself whole and entire, body and spirit when, as the solemn definition declared, she had “run the course of her life”. Even though the proclamation of this beautiful dogma is so recent, the belief in the Assumption of Mary is ancient. At the time when it was being considered for solemn definition some argued that there was no need to formally declare it since it was a prevailing and universal belief.

The dogma of the Assumption, promulgated as the wave of Marian devotion was cresting in 1950, stands as an expression of faith and devotion for some and as a stumbling block for reunion and interfaith dialogue for others.   Among our friends in the East, this holy mystery and feast day is expressed and celebrated as the Dormition of Mary, the Mother of God. As a dogma of our faith and as a holy day of obligation, we observe the Feast of the Assumption on August 15th.

HolinessMarian devotion today is fostered and fed by the modern voices of contemporary writers and artists.   Nowhere is this clearer or more powerfully illustrated than in the works of the contemporary artist Janet McKenzie. Most prominent for me is the evocative effect her Marian imagery has had on contemporary women. Her voice is one that speaks what so many would say if only they had the words, the talent. Janet McKenzie’s images of Mary resonant with the faith, spiritual sensibilities and experience of so many of the voiceless and marginalized of our world. This is profoundly evident in two recent works. The first book is Holiness and the Feminine SpiritThe Art of Janet McKenzie (Orbis, 2009). This wonderful book of paintings by Ms. McKenzie is graced with the pithy evocative essays of many contemporary writers, including Sister Wendy Beckett, Sister Joan Chittester, and Sister Helen Prajean. The second is the profoundly inspiring Way of the Cross by Sister Joan Chittester and Janet McKenzie (Orbis, 2013). The power of Sister Joan’s words is perfectly paired with the images of Ms. McKenzie.  It is a real meditation. My personal spirituality is continually stirred by Ms. McKenzie’s images. I recommend them to all who love to pray with images and experience them as channels of grace and meditative dialogue. I can think of no better way to celebrate the Marian Feast of the Assumption of Mary, the Mother of God.

Susan O’Hara teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.