Monday, 26 January 2009

Postscript about those whose guitars should have been sacrificed

When I write twice in a day, one can tell I'm really sick of winter.... :)

Heavens, do I have major intellectual and aesthetic pollution today... because I have a variety of utterly dreadful songs (somehow, just to give them the distinction of 'hymn' seems blasphemous) in my mind as a result of an unfortunate accident. I was at a library this week, doing some research about religious themes as depicted in contemporary literature, and one book was about how nuns have been presented (not only in literary treatment per se, but in the ridiculous pictures we used to see in magazines of the 1950s-60s, where it seemed all nuns were perpetually giggling and eating the poor man's version of Knickerbocker Glory - in the days when nuns hoped for more modern knickers and had a totally distorted version of glory.)

One illustration in the book was of a record album cover, featuring Medical Mission Sisters. (I'd heard the blasted tunes many times, having had the bad fortune to have a stint teaching little children. Maybe only those in that situation had full exposure to this rot, as I sincerely hope.) I'd had no idea that the songs were produced by a religious community, but just seeing the titles brought back memories of dreadful liturgies, back when 'making the children think it was their liturgy' was all the rage.

Some of you are young, many lifelong Anglicans, so I may not receive sufficient sympathy... but what other 'ancients' here remember such gems as these? (I'd forgotten them for forty years...) Lyrics such as these, like 'free verse' popular during the era, or musical settings by Don McLean, leave one wondering if they are too deep for the average individual to comprehend, or if they mean nothing at all and are merely allowing the composer to laugh all the way to the bank.

"Spirit of God in the clear running water,
Flowing to greatness the trees on the hill.
Spirit of God in the finger of morning,
Fill the earth, bring it to birth, and blow where you will.
Blow, blow, blow till I be but breath of the Spirit blowing in me."

Or how about this one?

"It's a long road to freedom,
Winding, steep and high,
But if you walk in love with the wind on your wings,
And cover the earth with the songs you sing,
The miles fly by.

I walked one morning by the sea,
And all the waves reached out to me,
I took their tears, then let them be."

I did not understand those lyrics then, and don't now. I suppose I'm admitting to stupidity or a lack of religious sensitivity.

There also was the unforgettable "Joy is Like the Rain," not to be confused with the Gregory Norbet "masterpiece" by the same title:

"I see raindrops on my window,
Joy is like the rain..."

I couldn't figure out if the original authors of these gems were aged 5 or merely hadn't taken their bipolar medication.

Remember "Hear, O Lord"? I suppose I just am uncomfortable with misplaced modifiers, but take a good look at these lyrics: "every night, before I sleep, I pray my soul to take - or else I pray that loneliness is gone when I awake." Loneliness may be hard to take, but it does seem a strange prayer: "kill me tonight if I'll be lonely tomorrow."

I have no idea why - maybe that record album cover contained this gem, though I'm uncertain. But at least I think it has been some time since anyone was subjected to:

"I cannot come! (Aside: today kids would think it was a reference to orgasm.)
I cannot come to the banquet,
Don't bother me now,
I've married a wife,
I've bought me a cow,
And I have fields and commitments
That cost a pretty sum
Please hold me excused
I cannot come."

That's on my mind today... a pathetic situation. Oddly enough, I think I only actually heard that song performed (at a youth mass, of course) once, many years ago. Whichever music is worst tends to be that which most enduringly affects some part of one's brain in which it becomes an enduring memory.

As an aside, I shall admit that there are some musically dreadful songs for which I either have some affection or which I consented to play at liturgies now and then, because they brought back memories or were cherished by many people. A few years ago, there was an Internet poll where Roman Catholics were invited to share the 'what and why' of their very favourite hymns. I was expecting either the great or the sentimental, yet the winner was "Be Not Afraid." (For the record, this song is of far better quality than those I've referenced previously. I'm just surprised at the reasons for the vote.) The comments section showed that the reason it was first on the list was that people remembered it from "Dead Man Walking."

I love Gregory Peck and A. J. Cronin, and shall confess that, when I watched a video of "Keys of the Kingdom" (and this though the film in no way does the book justice), when the children sang "Come, Holy Ghost" because it was main character Father Chisholm's favourite hymn, I had that in my mind for days.

I'm remembering how many people (including me - I can still remember hearing "Jesus, Food of Angels," at my first communion, though I doubt I've heard it since) connect a favourite song to a memory. People who haven't been to church in 30 years, but who have fond memories of May crowning ceremonies, can be brought near tears by "Bring Flowers of the Fairest." I remember when some people at a parish where I served asked me when I would include, "Good-night, Sweet Jesus," since they fondly remembered its being used at the end of evening novenas. I refrained from saying "over my dead body" only because, were I to meet an untimely end, I feared they'd play it at my funeral.

Popular books on religious themes - a trivial post :)

Bear with me, blogger pals. :) Today is one of those days when I am close to cursing the very technology I normally find enriching. For example, need I remind any of you how tiring it can be, when one is on 'automatic payment' with a vendor, and is being hit with unprocessed payments and late fees... though clearly they had the account information the last time a payment went through, and nothing has changed? Internet forums can be highly enriching, but I often muse that the saddest part is that 'loud mouths' and others who have little to contribute but do so in a bullying fashion now have an entire world to abuse... and people must like it, because they return. Remember when there was something resembling 'customer service' out there, with people who were well trained? It would seem to me, considering all those dreadful years I spent with telecommunications, that my reporting a problem with service (complete with details and diagnostics - hardly your typical home customer), would lead to a response other than 'we can only check if you have a dial tone.' What about when one wishes to order something or remedy a problem, needs to mention a particular consideration or report a problem, and is either sent an email linking to an FAQ which has nothing whatever to do with the difficulty, or is placed 'on hold' with repeated messages in one's ear about looking at the blasted FAQ which was of no value in the first place?

Yes, it is one of my irritable days. Winter is always the worst time of year for me - I think my brain freezes, and my natural warmth doesn't keep my chilly (figurative) side from predominating. So, here I am, with little of any value to contribute, but utterly frustrated because I'm unable to focus enough to produce things which are of value for the moment.

I review books for Amazon, a number of which I receive in 'pre publication' form. A number of them (surprise!) are on religious topics - though that covers a wide scope. It appears, and I say this with dismay, that the same people who haunt the Internet forum where they can play at being mentally ill (or display that indeed they are... though the ones who are remain unaware and think themselves enlightened) must enjoy purchasing books which could be sub-titled "Chronicle of one who was and is totally crackers but can manage to blame it on a religious upbringing." (I don't know which is worse - this or "I was and am a nut case but am enlightened since I 'got religion.'")

One book which I recently reviewed was written by a comedienne (whose words admittedly are wickedly funny, though the content is largely tragic) who apparently sees having obsessive compulsive disorders (cutting her arms, counting telephone poles, needing to regularly wash the walls) as resulting from having been a Jehovah's Witness. Another, written by a former RC Sister who admits to being bipolar but loved the flattery and attention when (at least in her mind) men all were trying to chat her up, would make it appear Catholicism was to blame.

I am not suggesting that many devout Christians (or Jews, or Muslims, or Buddhists - though that last might not use the term devout), who were extraordinary or even saintly, might not have been a bit bent - neither Francis of Assisi nor Catherine of Siena, just to name the two who first come to mind, would have passed psychological tests, and I thank divine providence that there were no shrinks then to make them doubt their own integrity or think awe-inspiring love was a pathology. Nor would I question that some 'nuts get religion,' considering I heard, on two occasions in the past, of rather bizarre characters, both of whom thought they were the pope. But what is the attraction for reading of people who have illnesses that are quite tragic, as if this were the result of belief?

There have been some excellent, even brilliant, works of biography or literature on religious topics. For example, just to mention one that is fairly recent, Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" was a superb mixture of humour, logic, history, and detective story. I think I would enjoy having tea with many of Trollope's characters, even if, in their time or place, were I written into a novel it would have to lean more towards Dickens. There also are outstanding films, whether adaptations of history or fictional treatments of truths, in the religious genre. Perhaps the ones I find just as trying as the 'let me out of my straitjacket and I'll tell of my religious upbringing' are those which were totally silly.

I sometimes will watch films for pure relaxation, and, of all things, I saw that "The Singing Nun" was on the television a few days ago. I remember well when the real Singing Nun was a one-hit wonder with Dominique (it is unfortunate that her life ended very tragically, with a suicide during the 1980s.) A few of her songs were quite lovely ("Beyond the Stars" would qualify) - and the words to "Dominique" are a nice prayer, though the accompaniment and arrangements are beyond basic, and she was not a gifted singer.

The film version, based on Sr Luc Gabriel's music, not her life history, was quite a sensation in its day. I suppose that, in 1966 when 'updating' was first on the agenda, a nun going about on a motor scooter, or being crushed to hear a rock version of her song as she passes a local discotheque, seemed intensely relevant. (Lots of things were relevant in those days - Planet of the Apes was huge social commentary, for example. I once commented on the "Singing Nun" film to the effect that I'd call it "Peanuts Goes to the Vatican," except that Charles Schulz's comic strip had more depth.) Seeing this film again made it seem sheer camp. Even the great Greer Garson had such horrible dialogue that she couldn't redeem it - and Ricardo Montalban, whom I think was not only very handsome but the utter soul of style, hardly rises above the cartoon character guise. I never cared for Debbie Reynolds (even if her singing was somewhat better than Sr Luc Gabriel's), but her character was so exaggerated (and over-acted) that a film which I suppose was to have shown great depth is unintentionally hilarious. About the only redeeming factor was the vague theme that one new to religious service often has great zeal and no prudence (and should be careful about waving to either giraffes or boat captains, especially when she is riding a scooter and can whack into an innocent vendor's horse, or driving a Jeep and likely to have to watch the curves on the dusty Congo roads.)

I shall add, however, that I think it best for viewers to have some, vague idea that "Dominique" was written about a saint of whom you must have heard (though the French words are rather a finer prayer than the English version in this film)... not about a poor man's gamin, aged four perhaps, who enchants Sister when he kicks her in the shin. His sister, posing nude to earn money to support Dom and his low-life father, does reach a moment of redemption when Sister Anne gives her the guitar... and turns aside from worldliness. And here I thought music was a prime way in which to make a joyful noise...

Hold it... cancel that... there's 'joyful' and there is 'noise,' and the latter sometimes masquerades for music. When I recall what sort of liturgical music was being cranked out in 1966 and beyond, perhaps we would have been better off if some people had given their guitars away to the poor and devoted more time to dodging giraffes...

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Quick thoughts on the Conversion of Saint Paul

My seasoned readers are well aware that my definition of 'quick' tends to be 'I cannot write a book - or a shelf of books - on the topic, nor even a dissertation - so here are a few things which come to mind.' New readers must be cautioned that this does not mean I'm writing two sentences.

Winter is dreadful, is it not? My brain seems to be out to lunch, and I'm very tired of it's seeming as if it were night all of the time, shivering even in the heavy coat, having chapped skin, and wearing trousers so much. I haven't been quite up to writing much that is useful, but wanted to drop a line just to keep in shape. My only comfort this dreadful season is that at least we'll all have a break from anyone's preaching about global warming.

Few of us shall have such dramatic conversions as did Saul of Tarsus - but what a providential conversion this would be. Indeed, I could write half a shelf of books about Paul - and about conflicts in the early church, such as how Paul whacked Peter at the first ecumenical council. My idealistic generation, who seemed to think that singing "they'll know we are Christians by our love" would return us to a blissful tenderness of the first century should have read Paul's epistles with a little more critical sense. (Discernment was unthinkable at the time, as I recall... my time, not Paul's, though it wasn't too plentiful in his time, either.) It was no peace and love fest in the early days, either.

Paul must have been quite a difficult character, but, naturally, I especially cherish him because he was the strength of the Gentile mission. There were many debates in the early Church - indeed, Christ's gospel should extend to all of the earth, but is the Gentile mission on a level with that of the Church in Jerusalem? In Ephesus, it is possible that (reading the letters of John), many of the conflicts about love and hating one's brother are not abstract speculations, but have to do with conflicts between Johannine and Pauline Christians. (Yes, it's true I love reading John more than Paul... but I'd praise Paul's pastoral work on any occasion. I'd also caution 21st century readers to recall that nearly all of Paul's writings were addressing specific pastoral difficulties.)

Lord, I'm getting nowhere today! :) Well, until my brain thaws, probably around Holy Week, I need to lean on a few great scholars. I was consulting some notes I had, from Jerome Murphy-O'Connor's "Paul: A Critical Life," since he is one of my favourite scripture scholars. Perhaps one section, which has to do with not only the old chestnut of Paul and the Law ( sarcasm there... none of us found that essay easy to write, and we all felt stupid because every divinity student in history had to write it...), but with very apt points we can remember in any era. He treats in particular of the letter to the Romans (without dwelling on what immediately struck me... does any sermon in history not have some reference to collections?)

Anyway, here is Jerome (in summary)He argues cleverly, regarding Jewish attitudes towards the Law, that ‘the human mind instinctively simplifies.’

  • Lip service was paid to the fundamental concept of gratuitous grace in election, but, in practise, attention was concentrated on observance of the commandments. (I see this as the clearest explanation yet! Rather than other views I have seen, one in which the law is a distraction because, in practise, it denies the free gift of divine grace makes great sense.)

  • One false, inherited value: attitude towards the Law which distorted its true purpose. Fundamental in Jewish thought is a belief in their election by a divine, gratuitous act.

  • Membership in the covenant was necessary to salvation. God’s giving of the law established the covenant. Tricky point for Jewish theologians: precise relationship of divine initiative and human response.

  • If disobedience meant damnation, it seems logical (given the tendency to simplify!) that obedience wins salvation.

  • A religion of grace expressed in covenant form (in the popular imagination, if not in theological dissertations) becomes one of meritorious achievement.

  • Paul’s concerns: less the idea that there could be an approach to the law of effectively ‘buying salvation’ than the inversion of values consequent on the importance attached to obedience and law.

  • Murphy-O'Connor illustrates, from rabbinical stories, how God 'failed to realise that, once He’d given the Law, it was out of his hands. Only the voice of rabbis counted.'“Jewish theological thought debated points of law, not mysteries of grace.”

  • Murphy-O'Connor comments that the Law,“Left no real space for God, grace, or faith – only for obedience.”

‘In order to ensure that the gracious gift of God, in Jesus Christ, would retain its primacy in practise, Paul had to insist it was irrelevant for all believers.” Fundamental objection: Law, once admitted, inevitably created an attitude which monopolised the religious perspective.Authentic response to God’s grace is in the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ –in no way anticipated by the Law.Once the goal of the Law was achieved in Jesus Christ, the means thereto (the Law) had no raison d’être.

Close the quotes... and, if this wise gentleman is in the neighbourhood, or I happen to be in Jerusalem, I must meet him for a pint. I have a feeling we'd agree on many points... and, if I don't have his knowledge, indeed I do have the same type of humour. I leave these wonderful quotes to ponder. (And, if you wish to have a better laugh still, with more insights, obtain a copy of the same book and see what he has to say about Corinth.)

Thursday, 8 January 2009

A little word about indulgences

No - here I'm not doing public penance for having had a slice of cake on my birthday. :) As it happened, last Sunday I heard an Anglican acquaintance refer to how "Roman Catholics can still buy Masses to get people out of purgatory." I'm not faulting her - I fear that there indeed are RCs who think that is precisely the case, rather than seeing, for example, how the Eucharist makes present Jesus' Incarnation to the benefit of the Church (in this life or the next) and so forth. Yet no one who has delved into matters medieval to the extent tow which I have can ignore the distortion of the concept of indulgences which led to various blessings and shortcomings in the Middle Ages. (Indeed, the abuses of the ideas of indulgences which Martin Luther rightly criticised were not remedied until the reforms of the Council of Trent - though, throughout the Middle Ages and probably till this day in some circles, valid pious practises too often were and are used as if they were magic.

I just may get around to writing an essay for the site on the history of concepts of purgatory during the Middle Ages. Though the doctrine itself merely admits to possible purification after we die (and implicitly allows for that we await the general resurrection / parousia - our death alone is not fulfilment), by the medieval period there were massive controversies about Church authority and its extent. This speculation included whether the Church Militant (on earth) had authority over the Church Suffering (those in purgatory) - I daresay some of the medieval and renaissance popes would have enjoyed authority over the Church Triumphant (in heaven), but there was no profit to be made from seeking that. Consequently, over the centuries a very elaborate judicial system, involving pardons, remittance of punishment and the like arose - unique in that it was exercised in a jurisdiction which, theologically, is not a 'place' at all, and involved authority over those already dead.

Initially (in the early centuries of the church), indulgences were allowances for lesser penances for those (very much alive) who had been guilty of grave public sins. Sacramental confession as we know it today, or as it would have been known by the 13th century (when it was obligatory for all by decree of the Lateran Council in 1215), did not exist in this form in the earliest centuries. (There also were huge debates over whether those before the ecclesiastical courts could be considered members of a holy Church - not being holy. That's another topic for another day, though it's fun to think of such a standard being applied to the early modern papacy...) Those serving public penance were guilty of crimes such as apostasy - bishops who sacrificed to pagan gods, for example. The early penances were very severe, and could span years or the remainder of one's life. (Human nature has not changed. This was lessened later, because, rather than leading to a crop of holy saints, it led to people not returning to the Church at all, or putting off repentance to their death beds.)

It was only centuries later that the Franciscan Pope Sixtus extended indulgences to the dead. However, the general thinking (in an era when, regrettably, discussions of grace made it seem rather like a substance, and the truth of how the entire Church benefits or grieves for its members good and evil was often ignored for a concept of merit that made it seem like a giant cash machine) was the the dead who were in purgatory could no longer earn merit on their own behalf, for all that their salvation was assured. They needed to rely on the prayers (alms, good works, and so forth) of the living. I do not at all think that love ceases with death, or that those who went before us do not pray on our behalf, but I shudder to think of how those who may have been the only members of a large family to survive the Plague dealt with believing they had to atone for relatives' sins to alleviate the latter's suffering in purgatory.

Liturgical scholars undoubtedly would view the common worship of the Middle Ages as something of a nightmare. (It is no accident that sacramental theology, preaching, the training of the clergy, and ritual also had to be major concerns at Trent.) Private Masses for the intentions of those in purgatory became a norm, and the Eucharist was viewed as performed by the clergy on behalf of others, rather than as a truly common ritual. (Most people adored the Blessed Sacrament - but were fortunate to receive it once a year.) Some monasteries grew fat on trading on people's fear of purgatory, and monks who had no theological training were ordained purely to offer the many private Masses requested. At the time, relics could still be sold, donations be solicited not for the support of the church in itself but to 'buy' ways out of future suffering, and more.

I know my regulars must be weary of my speaking of how the main flaw in the western Church is an emphasis on atonement, but it does apply here. Prayer, alms, fasting and the like are very valuable spiritual practises - but ascetic practises intended to remove distractions and thereby foster intimacy with God can deteriorate when it seems we are appeasing an angry god. Charity for those living and dead certainly fits into theology and ecclesiology, but the image of a god who inflicts torments until those still on earth can manage atonement is tragic. The incredible, indeed unfathomable, richness of the Eucharist can be forgotten when the anamnesis is set aside to focus entirely on sin, crucifixion, forgiveness and reparation.

Even in my own younger days, there was excessive emphasis on purgatory and indulgences. As a simple example, and one which naturally first occurs to a Franciscan, the Stations of the Cross can be a wonderful meditation - yet this aspect could be lost if one focussed on that it had attached indulgences. Superstition - the 'chain prayer' approach - can slip in when the focus is on multiplying indulgences rather than praise and thanksgiving. When I was young, people still spoke of doing things to 'save souls' - in my feisty moments, I'd comment "give me seven days, and I'll create the cosmos, then." I'm not ready to define redemption, because all of our definitions are inadequate - but redemption is already accomplished in Christ, and we can and should offer thanksgiving for this.

There is much I can say about distortions of Thomas and Bonaventure's ideas later (though most friars were so caught up with caring for the Plague victims that there were few chances for successors to those great ones... and, on a less positive note, where Thomas stressed discernment more than heresy, the Inquisition was keeping friars a bit occupied as well.) I can even trace the confusing influences of William of Ockham - but I've gone on quite enough for today. I just want to say a tiny bit about the private Masses.

I'm well aware that many ordained in the Middle Ages could barely say Mass. (I'm saving another essay for the best part of medieval liturgy - it was a time when music flourished.) There were indeed monasteries and individuals who used the fear of purgatory to grow fat with wealth - and I often wonder if this played a part in Francis of Assisi's stress on poverty. But let us not ignore positive elements - and these came to my mind (I'll admit them even though, as a post-Dom Gregory Dix Christian, I blush to do so. Whether it's the 13th century or the time of Abraham I'm considering, I find it helpful to try to step out of my 21st century mould and try to view things from the perspective of those alive then. Those of us who lived long before or long afterwards could miss this easily.)

There may have been great charity and true service of the Church in the actions of many of those involved. Monks, whose primary vocation was prayer, had, in the private Masses, a form of devotion with boundless benefits for the entire Church (including the poorest - those in purgatory, totally helpless and dependent.) It is logical that, in using his time to offer Masses, thereby applying the benefits of Christ's sacrifice in persona Christi, generosity of spirit and awareness of an obligation, in charity, to pray for others is implicit. What action could have been more perfect, or of greater benefit, than the Eucharist?

Today, most would be inclined to see acts of reparation on behalf of others as faulty theology - contrast this with the notion of presenting petitions on behalf of others which was integral in a feudal society. Devotion to the Passion, which flowered in the Middle Ages, a period when devotion to Christ in his humanity was at a peak, would have stressed Jesus' aloneness at the time of his crucifixion - a rather solitary act, because he was betrayed, virtually abandoned, and, even to those present, the true meaning was certainly hidden. With the Mass seen mainly as a representation of Calvary (then and long afterwards), a private Mass would hardly seem incompatible with devotion. As an ascetic practise, offering Mass for one's own salvation, as was possible, shows some grasp of repentance, humility, amendment, and dependence on the merits of Christ. I can even see where the multitude of Masses could lead to an awareness of Christ's Incarnation and sacrifice as omnipresent.

It is unfortunate that much which could have had great richness too often could descend into fear, based on placating a god who demanded this (I didn't use the capital letter because I do not see that the true God ever had such intentions), or into magical, repetitive practises with no grasp of the underlying beauty.

Monday, 5 January 2009

No offence intended...

One would think, in this wonderful Christmas season with Epiphany beckoning, that I would not be so crotchety today. I'll admit I do not know what set me off. Perhaps it is that an old acquaintance was asking me if I'd written any new essays for my Internet site recently. I should indeed like to do so soon, but I suppose I wonder if they do anyone any good in the first place. Considering some of the email I receive, I wonder if those who ask me about mediaeval instruments of torture, Wiccan spells, etc., have taken even the most cursory glance at the essays. (Some Freudian oddity wanted to know how I could deal with Julian of Norwich's treatment of Christ's blood, and hadn't I found it disgusting. My response was that I hope not - having just drank some. I'm sure my faithful readers catch my reference to the Eucharist, but it just occurred to me that I might be thought either a deviant or a vampire by those with no sense of doctrine or irony.)

You all know of my love for the theatre - and, since the musical "1776" was hardly a noble effort (though it featured some fine actors), don't ask me why this one line remained in my memory. During disputes about the composition of the declaration of independence, John Adams scoffs, "It's a revolution, damn it! We're going to have to offend somebody!"

Well, revolutions (and treason... anarchist though I am at heart) are hardly my style. In fact, I'm one who dislikes confrontation. But I am so very tired of how easily people become offended today - and it's especially popular in religious circles. Perhaps I haven't written any essays recently because a situation exists now which is very new in the world of scholarship/theology. Apparently one must know every last detail of every past or present theologian's writings and biographies (probably down to what jokes he made when having a pint with friends in the days when York's oldest pub was new - or what dinner guests he had in 331 AD), and not quote anyone who ever said or did anything that could offend anyone today.

It's difficult - not being able to quote the patristic theologians because they were judged misogynist or class conscious - or medievalists who were elitist about the souls of human animals (as if Christ's assuming humanity meant that humans were dignified over giraffes... better start boiling the pot of oil for my execution, because I'd definitely say the human is unique...). I cannot mention the greatest living theologians - there's going to be someone, somewhere, who is offended by what they support or do not support. Lord have mercy, I recall one writer's going on about the 'racism' of Julian's referring to dark skinned demonic figures, I'm sure similar to those in medieval art (which certainly resemble no African I've ever seen - or one Julian would have seen had she ever seen an African in the first place.) I suppose there are those wild enough to think I'm anti-Semitic because I love the gospel of John (despite his being a Jewish evangelist writing of quite a distinguished Jewish carpenter... oh, heavens, I'm sure I've just offended someone by implying John had to be a male.)

Writing this reminds me of a few incidents from 20 years ago or so. I remember a discussion of the outstanding achievements of those who were disabled, and I spoke of a high regard for Helen Keller - this was dismissed with "she believed in abortion." (I've no idea if that is so, nor do I ever recall anything I read of hers which even referenced that topic, but let's just say the discussion was over.) I've been guilty of worse, of course, referencing Annibale Bugnini's work on the liturgy... supposedly he was a Freemason infiltrating the Curia, perhaps as an agent of the anti-Christ. (I haven't any notion of whether Bugnini was a Freemason, though, if so, that would hardly give him unique status in Rome.)

It is very frustrating - not being able to quote some of the most notable theology of the past 2,000 years (and earlier), because the writer might not support (or did, or does, support) some unrelated matter which would cause offence to the easily offended. Since when does mentioning excellent points mean that one must agree with every statement of another's life?

Friday, 2 January 2009

Doubt (the film)

Happy New Year, my friends - and may it be a blessed one. Oddly enough, though I have visions of Incarnation, deification, and cosmic redemption dancing through my head (having already found that sugarplums are to my disadvantage...), today I've had the new film "Doubt" much on my mind. I had the good fortune to find a cinema which offered bargain rates for pre-midday showings, and seeing this excellent film was my birthday present to myself.

Be forewarned that I have no credentials as a film critic, but anyone interested will find a wealth of words on the Internet from those who do, and I'm not alone in thinking it superb. The four principal characters gave stunning performances, and (though some critics would disagree) I found the camera treatments to be highly effective. Though Meryl Streep, as the formidable Sister Aloysius, dominates the action to some extent (as well she should, given the situations portrayed), I found it to be a decent example of ensemble acting, which is very much my film preference. (I loathe Hollywood clichés of 'scene stealing' and such rot.)

I don't want to include spoilers, because I'd highly encourage others to see this film and don't want to ruin the unfolding of the plot. Yet there is enough in the reviews I mentioned for me to disclose nothing in saying that the ambiguity of the dialogue and situations are most thought provoking. I suppose the nature of the person would influence the perception to a great extent, and I am not loath to share my own impressions (with which others may strongly disagree - and those of us who enjoy films where questions remain unresolved will not be disappointed, for every element of the action contains 'doubt.')

Though there are reasons of discretion which make me not be specific here or elsewhere on the Internet, I worked for the Roman Catholic church for 29 years, and in a managerial position where I had occasion to see the full scope of ... what I'll term the human condition. Most of the clergy and religious with whom I dealt were very decent people, some extraordinary, yet when I did encounter situations which were less than edifying, or occasionally potentially scandalous, they seldom had to do with anything remotely connected to sex, let alone sex crimes (of which Sr Aloysius assumes Father Flynn is guilty, with no proof whatever.) Of the seven capital sins, the one most likely to infect professional churchmen is some form of avarice - often more for power than for material wealth. Sister Aloysius may be assumed a heroine by some viewing the film, because the media focus on paedophilia is often exaggerated or distorted to a point where one might assume (and totally without substance, in my experience) that most clergy either are guilty of such crimes or sheltered those who did so. I am in no way minimising the heinous situations in which this was the case! I am merely reminding my readers that not only were the number of clergy so involved a small minority, but that, in the course of my lengthy career but also in my life experience overall, I have seen far more people become spiritual quadriplegics through rash judgement, detraction, and calumny (which can masquerade as virtues for those, such as Sr Aloysius, who insist on their own 'certainty' despite a lack of any evidence) than from criminal offences. Sadly, I have seen many people's reputations destroyed, unjustly, because of such judgement and talk - normally not because of criminal allegations, but from detraction or calumny in other forms.

Many thoughts struck me as I viewed the film (and not only because I well remember a nun here and there rather like Aloysius, or that it constantly occurred to me that the dreadful school choirs depicted in the film were sadly like the reality I recall from my own school days... back in the far off time of idealism when I genuinely believed there was hope for the RC music and liturgy.) I noticed, for example, how Aloysius was ready to assume Fr Flynn had a personal indiscretion to hide when he spoke of doubt in a sermon (which was of better quality than one might hear from a genuine pulpit.) She suggests to her fellow Sisters that this meant they must be wary of what is happening in the school - and, when she bit off the head of an elderly Sister who was puzzled and asked if Aloysius meant academic standards, let us say that there was shades of a few equally charming (ahem!) Sisters who came to mind. Of course, I know my own spirituality (part patristic, part medieval English mystic, part walking at right angles to the world... not to mention a weird stew of Franciscan, Dominican, and Benedictine, with a touch of the Jesuit graduate education flavouring the gravy) is not exactly typical of everyone in the pew, nor of Sisters of Charity whose focus is more on nursing and education than on contemplation. Still, whether the likes of Father Flynn would have their minds on exactly what I did or not, it immediately occurred to me that doubt is a staple of spirituality - in fact, it can be a sign of the mystic vocation in some cases (there is no certainty in faith - and true faith always begins with a recognition of mystery and eventual, growing awareness that our grasp of the divine is but a glimpse of what is far beyond us.)

Sister James, the young nun who is teaching children of 13 or so, struck a chord with me as well. (She is sweet, innocent, and a great lover of children... not traits of which I'd ever be accused. Yet she wants to show warmth, openness and love to those whom she serves, and wishes to assist her pupils in enjoying history, the subject she teaches. As I've seen many times 'in real life,' this wonderful teacher becomes a minor tyrant when Aloysius believes that James is not 'controlling the class.' (As one who had the experience of teaching adolescents, I thought her class was about as good as that for which a teacher could hope!) I could identify, as well, with how James has empathy for Fr Flynn - and the viewer is left to guess whether his warmth, affection, friendliness and so forth are the pretences of a paedophile or the outgrowth of a genuinely loving heart (my impression being the latter.)

It saddened me to remember that the very positive role which priests (and religious, and teachers, and others in service to the young and not so young) is greatly curtailed today. Whatever is implied (and my own impression was more that Sr Aloysius had a prurient side to her thinking than that she was the only one clever enough to read signals), there is absolutely nothing shown (or known) to indicate sexual activity between Fr Flynn and the boy whom Sr Aloysius believes he is molesting. Like Fr Flynn, I have held and comforted those who are distressed (in my case, even when the homeless gave me such souvenirs as ringworm). Fr Flynn's keeping quiet that an altar boy sampled some of the wine (...I'd like to know which has not, though the drunkenness to which most pretend is pretence, since the wine isn't very potent and there isn't much to go around..) - his defending the first black child in the school from bullying (though bullying is a teenage art form, and one cannot assume sheer racism) - his powerful (and very true!) sermon about the dangers of gossip - all were perfectly understandable and could meet a simple explanation.

When Sister Aloysius (in what she later admits to Sr James was an outright lie) mentions that she told Fr Flynn that a nun at his previous parish had revealed details about him, she is smug in assuming that he would not have been troubled at this had he had nothing to hide. Yet there is no reason to assume that gossip (or what some people who eat the candles off the altar consider to be scandalous) means a history of criminal behaviour. When Fr Flynn, in one of the most powerful moments in the action, asks Aloysius if she has ever been guilty of grave sin, it was not a confession of any criminal action on his part. We all have been guilty of sin - and, if Fr Flynn indeed is innocent, the sin of destroying another's reputation certainly meets all the criteria for being extremely grave.

The film leaves no answers - which makes the impact the greater. I am inclined to think that it will strike many people on many levels - and that is what makes for good theatre or literature... as much as for any humility in approaching the topic of spirituality.