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As food, the salsa may be perfectly nice to eat, but it’s also a symbol of something that’s going very wrong in the realm of human being. Consider how long it would take to reproduce that mix of tomatoes, onion, garlic, cilantro and peppers by hand. How much longer, to have grown and harvested the ingredients in your back yard?
Technology has saved you all the trouble of tilling, planting, watering, waiting, weeding, picking, washing, chopping, and canning! What’s not to love? I, for one, am a big fan of store-bought salsa. The problem is, though, that I now eat a ‘thin’ salsa, bereft of all those layers of actuality that might have gone into it.
Gradually, technology is stepping in to remove all of the messy and risky and uncomfy bits of our contact with the real world. As his experience of reality is thinned, flattened, or watered down, the human person is in grave danger of losing dimension himself. Fr. Giussani teaches that we are formed by encounter with reality, which – far from being an inert mental construct onto which we project our own preferences – has being, or actuality, that impacts and provokes, affects and interferes with our own being. This contact with the real, which used to be unavoidable, is more and more something you must consciously choose for yourself, if you would cultivate your own wholeness. Consider what your capacity for reality has to do with your capacity for Christ.
Begin by just opening your eyes to the realities being kept at a distance by prepared foods, cars, CDs, text messages, photos, glass windows, deodorants, etc… Next, choose some one thing to contemplate. Stop and dwell for a while on all the realities it re-presents to you now. Thank God for the people who made, designed, or gave it. Consider how the maker, the creator, becomes invisible behind the gifts he gives, unless we look through them. You can recover even more of life’s “thickness” if you’ll involve yourself in some real growing, chopping, making, talking, singing, or seeing. Enjoy! I’d love to hear your thoughts about all this.
For another take on the importance of encounter with reality, see this review of Matthew Crawford’s new book, The World Beyond Your Head.
I love this movie, and only regret that it’s not quite appropriate for young kids. It’s an extended metaphor for coming to grips with life’s terrible daily-ness. The main character – a jaded, worldly bachelor doing the obligatory annual report on the groundhog for his TV station – finds himself inexplicably trapped in one day – living it over and over with, apparently, no way out. As the horror of it dawns on him, he tries suicide. When even that doesn’t effect his escape, he turns to despair’s other alternative, hedonistic abandon. When it seems nothing can ever enter his alternate me-verse to lighten its burden, something does.
The human beings around him – formerly mere objects – begin to awaken him to the possibility of finding himself in the unending day by stepping outside himself for their benefit. As he purposes to fill that day with responsiveness to them, the day becomes more bearable. The one thing that can change from day to day, is the self. He gets to retain experience in memory, learn to play the piano, memorize poetry. Whatever else happens in the cramped limits of that day, he is becoming and cohering in increasing dimensionality outside the reach of the trap that holds him in time.
Love for the station’s beautiful producer awakens his desire not merely to serve, but to know and love another person. To plumb her mystery, to be worthy of her, to love her for her sake and not to manipulate or use her, become the goals that lift his unending day into something that approaches transcendence. Alas, though their time together partakes of eternity, it always ends with the day and is lost to the one who has no memory. Two kinds of ‘newness of life’ are in contrast: a horrible, memory-less, ever-new-ness which traps a person in an endless, impotent, fruitless childhood, and a marvelous freshness which by the power of memory coheres within a person, as person.
Into the now moment of chronos he seems fated to endure, kairos bubbles in through this person, in this person. The actuality of a love from beyond enters time, raises itself up within the very being of a man, and in his willingness to detach from all but love (all expectation of reward, fulfillment, future, pleasure) becomes the power that breaks through an awful magic that sought to unmake that man by tempting him to despair. Self is seen and followed to its destiny in the gaze of an Other. Life is acknowledged to be a gift, however hard it is to bear. Mystery breaks in through personhood to trump a lower and limited reality with its super-reality.
Sounds Catholic to me!
Your Worst Nightmares
Might it be that some dark trends in popular culture are the manifestations of the inherent human need to grapple with the Four Last Things? Where the Church squarely faces up to the realities of death, judgment, heaven and hell, post-modern man faces a vacuum of unbelief in the very realities that most demand his attention. The rational, materialist mind – reduced as it is in power to bear the tension this produces – has one escape route left to him.
Art has a kind of power to resolve seemingly impossible tensions – at its best resulting in a newly realized response to encounter with reality, and at its worst coughing up some deformed attempt to avoid it. Perhaps the recurring, disturbing, themes in popular books and movies are the last gasps of creative responsiveness in humanity increasingly untethered to reality.
Take a look at the nightmares expressed in pop culture, from this perspective:
Death is a formidable reality that, surely, is hard for those without faith in God to bear. Perhaps if we could make the undead hideously repulsive, our mortality would be more attractive. A rollicking fight to the death against beings who are unequivocally ‘bad’ is as good as it gets…all guts and no glory of the human person to worry about as you whack ‘em. In zombie warfare we get a chance to vent all the pent up adrenaline caused by the unacknowledged fear of death we’ve been carrying around. We can actually embrace the possibility of death as a sort of counterpoint to the ugly, mindless, boring lives we perceive everyone around us living. ‘They’ are all walking dead, and ‘we’ are the ones ‘really living it up’ with zest and fearlessness.
For you, zombie straw men. For me full personhood as I die to self in Christ.
Death is threatening, but you’d think the prospect of eternal life shouldn’t frighten anyone. Think again. Eternity looms as an abyss for those whose life is already fairly empty, boring, pointless, lonely, painful or depressing. Heaven is a fantasy, and besides that, wouldn’t be very entertaining as it’s merely endless choral music, thumb twiddling and prudery. What shall we do to resolve the fear that we may have immortal souls?
At all costs, if we must live forever, we must stay young, attractive, sexually fulfilled and rich to make it tenable. Enter the vampire: our alter-ego if we identify with his suave erudition and smouldering power; our super-ego if we prefer to be the one he seduces. Whether you’re the vampire, or his ravished lover, all pre-requisites for a bearable eternity are met in this inversion of new life in Christ, whose own blood restores life to and purifies the soul who rests in Him.
For you, the same night life forever. For me, the endless newness of life in the Son’s light.
Memo to unbelievers: demons and evil people exist, and you know it. But nothing in your philosophy helps you deal with those awful realities from the pit of hell. Reject them with a smirk, and still you’ll feel the dread of them oozing up from time to time. Keep pushing your fear down and your subconscious becomes a fertile ground for some vivid imaginations you can’t quite control. What to do?
Make a movie of them. Your compatriots, who want help explaining where their own horrible imaginings originate, will come watch it. That little thrill you get when the psycho-sexual, demonic violence plays on the screen (of your mind, or your theater) helps you believe you’re actually in control. You’re choosing to be a spectator and this is all make-believe. Right? There’s nothing evil threatening you, or influencing you, or drawing you to crave more and more horrific, explicit violence in exchange for the pleasure. More important, there’s nothing in you that corresponds to evil, that resonates with perversion and demonic rage…no bloodlust…no vulnerability to oppression or possession…nothing hellish is real. Right?
For you the thrill of make-believe evil. For me, a Savior to vanquish all-too-real evil.
Magic Gone Awry
Here I include technology as a form of magic – manipulation of the material universe with a view to obtaining amazing power over it. Many plots turn magic, technology, man’s creations and his own karma against him. Thus does he face judgement for his pride and his deeds – in this-worldly terms that carefully balance the scale of retribution for him through his own efforts. Somewhere in the depths of man is the awareness that he’s going to get what he deserves. Since there is no God to make that call, he fends off that possibility by gently judging and forgiving himself.
His own creations – clones, robots, computers, dinosaurs – might turn on him. (He will need to realize he’s created the problem, but will be suitably chastened by the challenge of dealing with it.) Or, he might get a high-tech revenge on someone who deserves it. (Revenge – justified violence – is like a backfire that puts out a wildfire. There’s no worry about being judged while you’re indulging in self-righteous mayhem.) The natural world he has exploited, ignored, accidentally radiated, or destroyed might rise up against him. (Of course, he’ll win the battle to subdue it, and be absolved by the harrowing ordeal.)
Movies like these can be cautionary tales, I suppose, but perhaps numb the soul a bit to the reality of a judgment that can’t be paid off with effort, or pain, or victim status.
For you, only natural consequences and high-tech restoration of your control over reality. For me, personal judgement and supernatural means – the atoning death on the Cross – to provide reconciliation with the Creator.
Well, that’s the end of these reflections on modern art and the work of the imagination…I wonder what you think of it all….
Fr. Giussani tells us that “Freedom is the correspondence to reality, in the totality of its factors.” For some, bondage to a nightmare of unreality. For me, the surpassing reality of knowing Our Lord Jesus Christ.
A lab-coated investigator places a box on a table before each participant, in turn. “What is in the box? Say whatever you think,” he says, to each one, alone. One person answers “Apples,” because the box says “APPLES” in red block letters. Another notices a word scribbled in marker on a label at one end and says, “Wine Glasses”. A third peeks into the box through a small hole in its side and says “Nothing in there.” Subject #4 lifts, shakes and smells the box, looks into all the torn places and holes, and says, “Clove-studded oranges.” Mr. 5 says, “I have no idea,” and when pressed to say whatever he thinks, laughs and says “I give up. A bomb?”
Finally, #6 answers. “Could be a hamster – there’s an air hole. Might be books, walnuts, tools – anything! How ‘bout a whole series of smaller boxes? Let’s see…there’s air in there, and dirt, probably. If it’s photographs you could say the box is full of memories. Depending on the books in there, that box might ‘contain’ India, or another planet, or a fairy world. What if it’s some high-tech gizmo…then it contains the work of dozens of scientists, years of research, rare earth. Wow! Should I go on??”
#1 used language decoding skill – relying on the accuracy of the label.
#2 did also, but took in a bit more information, held both labels in mind, and made a judgment.
#3 got his senses more fully involved, but didn’t realize the limitation he unconsciously accepted.
#4 used more sensory information, and gave the one correct answer.
#5 used his freedom to resist constraints instead of to play the game.
#6 answered as a child, or a poet might, because the question itself stimulated his imagination. He, following instructions to report “whatever he thought,” tried to report all the mental events triggered by the suggestion, “What might be in a box?”
I offer this scenario by way of explaining why I find it difficult to give short answers to interesting questions.
Case in point: our archbishop recently convened a ‘listening meeting’ to gather input for his ten—year planning process. I would never have presumed to offer any opinions about his management of the archdiocese, or his vision for it, but….he asked. And I began to consider the questions he asked. (What is the archdiocese doing well? What should be our main priorities? What should the archdiocese look like ten years from now?)
The first thing I noticed was that there were huge foundational gaps in my knowledge about the archdiocese. If I were going to picture it ten years along, I’d have to understand its current state better. A list of questions I’d like to ask developed from those gaps. Then, in my imaginary leap to “What would you say if the Archbishop was interested in your thoughts?” I discovered a wealth of material that didn’t quite fit into the three-question, one-paragraph format I’d been offered. Hence, a list of questions I wish he had asked.
Finally, set loose to create my own vision of our archdiocese, ten years older and wiser, I came up with lots of ideas. I had no idea what to do with all this outside-the-box response, and considered just keeping it to myself to save trouble for Self and the Bish’. But, it was all there, and such things, in my experience, do not go away. They beg to be at least typed and file away so as to free mental space for other work. And when I considered tucking those lists away and going on with my life, I really wished I could do it! (After all, when one knows one’s response is likely to be of little use to the recipient, to be a pain in his neck, or to be considered ridiculous and childish, one prefers to crawl under a rock with it!) But then, there’s that nagging sense that you are what you are, and God made you that way, and if nobody else answers in this way, it might be even more important that you do, and if everybody takes his response and files it the Archbishop will get nothing in the way of feedback at all.
So, a quick cover letter of explanation (“I’m a good girl, I am! This is not a challenge, or a rebellion, or a demand, or a joke, but a real offering.”), enclose the three lists, and I’m done. I won’t write out my answers to the questions I wish he had asked unless he expresses some desire to see them. Sigh…. By now, though, the Q’s had provoked A’s – one thing leads to another, and so now I’m actually interested in what my answers are, whether he is or not.
Enter: Blog. Here’s the entire series:
This is where I make room for my own thoughts, where I ‘essay,’ or try out my ideas. So, this is where I’ll post my responses, in case anyone is interested. Here’s a pdf of the Q’s and anyone is welcome to give your own A’s – to your pals, to me, to the Archbishop. If I were really leading an archdiocese, I’d want everyone’s responses. I might have to get help reading and sifting out main streams of thought, but I’d want the input. If he doesn’t (and I can’t imagine he’d have time for all this!), it’s all the same to me. This has been a good thinking exercise for me, so I’m happy. Nothing is wasted in God’s economy. Watch this space for my Q’s and A’s in the weeks to come. Consider writing up your own responses, and do suggest Q’s you wish the Archbishop had asked us.
I’m placing a contact form here, in case you, or the Archbishop, would like to get in touch about this Research Project of mine.
The Catholic Creatives Salon just hosted a viewing of St. Pope John Paul’s play, The Jeweller’s Shop. This is my introduction to it for guests who had not been reading Cat Hodge’s great article, Theodrama in Mid-Century Poland, from Second Spring volume 18.
Pope John Paul II once said we could know him best by studying his plays. His understanding of the role of drama, of the spoken word, in proposing truth to the world is at the core of all his writings about human freedom and human destiny.
In Nazi-occupied Poland, during WWII, young Karol Wojtyla considered how theater might be a means to restore man to himself. He was opposed, in principle, to a school of thought in which theater becomes a quasi-liturgical event, and where actors so strip away the elements of self as to become empty transmitters between impulse and action, drama and audience. Believing that the actor’s gift of self must not be a complete negation of self, Wojtyla emphasized the primacy of the spoken word over emotive gesture in his plays.
His Rhapsodic Theatre was a form of cultural resistance to the Nazi suppression of national identity. Stories that help us hold onto the narrative of our people help us hold onto our individual sense of self. Naturally, Poland’s masterworks of literature and her history were not welcome under German occupation.
Wojtyla and friends presented their adaptations of these essentially Polish stories in cramped spaces, in secret, in real danger, with few props and no lighting or sound technology. The actors wanted to so lift up the words as to convey idea most purely and emphatically. Just as an icon points back to the viewer for its full realization in his own being, their plays created a sacred space of encounter between audience and idea. As the viewer is moved, is provoked to come to a judgment, is challenged to respond, that space opens to God’s action within him.
Instead of propelling a wave of emotional stimuli, and initiating a thoughtless movement of gestural imitation in an audience, Rhapsodic Theatre, with its ‘words like a song’, sought to serve idea by proposing it well, and serve listeners by respecting the boundaries of their personhood. The Theatre of the Word demands more from us than to sit still while others act, vicariously experiencing action while atrophying in our own capacity to act. Instead of a bath of emotions, ‘free’ of intellectual analysis, reason, and judgment, we are involved in a questioning, and not supplied with a simple answer. Such a production isn’t complete until each of us then acts, freely, in response to the idea we have met through dramatization.
After Wojtyla became a priest, he continued to write plays, and The Jeweller’s Shop is his most famous. In it, he meditates on the Sacrament of Matrimony, through the lives of three different couples. In the third act, we meet the children of the first two couples. There are two spheres of action: the shop where they buy their wedding rings, and each character’s interior landscape. The Jeweler stands for the durability of marriage, as the couples reflect the pain and struggle in tension with that ideal.
We loved the movie, and had a great discussion of the ideas it placed before us – the importance of community to marital strength, the beauty of the Lover claiming his Bride, the way our response to the dissonance around us shapes our lives, the reality of the ‘cloud of witnesses’ that surrounds us, our longing for priests with time to be part of our families’ lives, and more.
In an amazing ‘God’s instance,’ The Jeweller’s Shop was also picked for this year’s readings by the Well Read Moms. God must agree with them that this a good time for the ‘year of the Spouse’!