Sunday, September 15, 2019

Celebrating Our Lady of Sorrows


The week leading up to the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows is a special one, as it means I get to celebrate both of my moms. My biological mother's birthday is on September 12th, and my spiritual mother's feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows is celebrated on September 15th.

I suppose "Celebrate" is a rather odd word to combine with the image of Our Lady of Sorrows; that is, Our Lady at the foot of the Cross, or with seven swords piercing her exposed heart, or the Pietá, Mary holding the corpus of her dead Son.


But the beauty of the Christian faith comprises the paradoxical juxtaposition of joy and sorrow.

This is seen especially at Christmas time in the juxtaposition of the celebration of the birth of Our Lord alongside the feast days of martyrs such as St. Stephen, the Holy Innocents, and St. Thomas Becket. (T.S. Eliot eloquently remarks on this holy juxtaposition in a sermon given during his play, Murder in the Cathedral, which depicts the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket).

These moments in the liturgical year serve as a reminder that while tragedy and suffering are a part of this earthly life, we do not walk this difficult road alone. To quote the recent interview with Late Show host, Stephen Colbert, "God does it, too." And so did the Blessed Mother. May we take comfort and even find joy in that knowledge.

"Her eyes were sad withouten art,
And seven swords were in her heart—
But one was in her hand. ...

... The men of the East may spell the stars
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed with the Cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark."

-- G.K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse.


Saturday, August 31, 2019

Sin in Storytelling


Last year I joined a local chapter of the national book club titled Well-Read Moms. (Disclaimer: I am not a literal mom, but I like to believe I live out the charism of spiritual motherhood through my students and my choir.)

 The club has been a really positive experience, and the books we read last year were enjoyable and edifying -- even Charles Dickens' Hard Times and George Eliot's Middlemarch... which I am still slogging through... but I digress. 



We are currently gearing up for the first book of the new year, a one-act play by Margaret Edson titled Wit (or W;t, depending on what edition you are reading). However, as we begin to delve into the work, one of the mothers in the group posited the following question: 

"In the play 'Wit', a character uses the phrase G--D--- several times. The character is not a Christian. One mother feels that Wit should not have been chosen since it takes the name of the Lord in vain. Her thought was that as a group for busy moms, the organizers of the club should have had a higher standard and found a different work on the same topic. What do you think?"

I was immediately reminded of the criticism that Flannery O'Connor received for her short stories. Although most of these stories are violent as well as dark, she always includes a moment of grace to which the main character must respond in some way, shape, or form. The main character may choose to reject this moment of grace, but it is there for the taking. 

Flannery O'Connor, 1925-1964.

Flannery O'Connor's stories portray the true order of the universe, for where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. God is ever reaching out to the human person in love, offering them moments to repent and to believe in the Gospel. At the Incarnation, God Himself entered into the sinful messiness of the human world, taking on flesh so that we might have life and have it more abundantly. But ultimately, it is the choice of the individual to accept His offer. 

When it comes to whether or not a book should be read and recommended by Catholics, the most important thing is whether or not the book proclaims the truth about the human condition and the spiritual order, for while there is sin, there is also grace. Both forces are at play, but the grace of God always prevails. 

There are plenty of books in great literature that contain sin, whether or not it's taking the Lord's name in vain or committing murder or adultery. Crime and Punishment is about a homicide. Does that mean we shouldn't read it? Solzhenitsyn's famous short story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich also contains profanity and blasphemy, but it honestly and brutally portrays life in a gulag, as the book gives a concise but brilliant testament to the evils of the Communist Regime in the Soviet Union. 

In sum, while it is possible for the portrayal of sin in storytelling to become gratuitous or over-the-top, it's important to portray the world honestly, and honesty requires the acknowledgement that we live in a fallen world, where sin and evil manifest themselves in various forms. However, evil must be counter-balanced by a poignant moment of grace. 

I am eager to see how the two forces are at play in Edson's Wit

Friday, August 16, 2019

Stranger Things, Broken Things, & Billy Hargrove


Stranger Things, Season Three
As soon as the release date was announced for the third installment in the Stranger Things series, my siblings and I made plans that we were all coming home for the July 4th holiday and we were going to spend our vacation together binging the newest installment in our latest obsession, complete with Eggos and Reese's Pieces.


Now, if you haven't seen season three yet and want to avoid spoilers, stop reading now. This is your one and final warning. If you haven't seen any Stranger Things and plan to watch it, stop reading. If you don't care, keep reading and I hope you change your mind. 


SPOILER ALERT

The creators of Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers, are phenomenal writers who know how to craft beautiful, three-dimensional characters and carefully plotted story arcs rooted in the great themes of classical mythology. Much like the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings or the Harry-Ron-Hermione trio of the Harry Potter series, a party of nerdy kids in Hawkins, Indiana remind us of the beauty of friendship, love, courage, and loyalty as they face fearful odds and terrifying monsters. Indeed, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, Stranger Things is true not because it tells us that monsters exist, but because it tells us that monsters can be beaten. 

These themes have been central to all three seasons of the show. However, a new theme was given center stage in season three: the theme of redemption as represented in the storyline of Billy Hargrove. 

The theme of redemption isn't new to Stranger Things, as Steve Harrington also undergoes a similar transformation over the course of seasons one and two. However, it can be argued that Steve's choices in season one were motivated primarily by selfishness and immaturity. 

By contrast, the Duffer Brothers characterize Billy as truly malevolent: he bullies his step sister Max and nearly runs over her friends with his car; he is a bigot and a liar; and he attempts to destroy the Wheeler family by trying to seduce the mother, Karen, who is clearly unhappy in her marriage. (Granted, he seems to be motivated more by lust and perhaps boredom than by a desire for revenge. Regardless, he is clearly up to no good.) 

Nevertheless, the writers are careful to maintain the humanity of their new villain. A brief exchange between Billy and his father towards the end of season two indicates that Billy's angry, volatile behavior is the result of verbal, physical, and emotional abuse. While this does not justify his actions, it contextualizes him for the audience.

Billy Hargrove, played by Dacre Montgomery

The Fall

In season three, the Mind Flayer attempts for the second time to assert its dominion over our world. While it cannot yet take physical form, it can use its influence to lure or capture unsuspecting victims and then subject them to its will. Billy is at the wrong place at the wrong time and, in the basement of an abandoned warehouse he becomes the second human victim possessed by the monster. Billy then becomes the primary tool through which the Mind Flayer subtly “recruits” additional human hosts until it amasses an army of what become known as “The Flayed.”

It’s not long before the AV Club of Hawkins Middle School & Co. realize that the Mind Flayer is back, that Billy is under its control, and it is building an army to destroy Eleven, the people of Hawkins, and the world as they know it.

Eleven, as played by Millie Bobby Brown

In Episode 6, Eleven attempts to locate Billy by reaching out to him via the astral plane. She finds herself on a California beach, where she witnesses a tender scene between ten-year-old Billy and his mother. This is followed by a series of pivotal moments over the course of his youth where Eleven observes the devastating impact of an abusive father on the troubled, angry young man she and her friends are trying to save.

Unfortunately, Eleven’s attempt to reach out to Billy compromises her position, and the Mind Flayer tracks her and her friends all the way to Starcourt Mall, where through a mysterious turn of events she is stripped of her supernatural powers. Although her friends attempt to shield her from the clutches of the Mind Flayer, they are no match for the Billy and the monster.

The Resurrection

As Billy presents a battered Eleven to the Mind Flayer, Eleven makes one last attempt to reach out to him. In one of the most beautiful moments in the entire show, she reminds him of his memory of his mother watching him play on the beach. She appeals to the goodness buried within him as represented in his love for his mom. Knowing Billy’s past of terrible suffering and trauma, and simultaneously drawing on her own experience of the loss of her mother, Eleven not only breaks through to him but also inspires him to turn and face the Mind Flayer, buying enough time for Hawkins’ heroes to close the Gate and defeat the monster. This costs Billy his life, and yet Billy Hargrove dies an unlikely hero in one tremendous sacrificial act.

Conclusion

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift,’ if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained.”

This does not mean that Our Lord wills for evil or tragic things to befall us, or that we should desire such things. Rather, it means that God allows in His providence and grace for us to experience suffering in order that a greater good might be brought forth, as the broken body of Christ on Calvary brought forth the redemption of mankind.

The fate of Billy Hargrove serves as a powerful example of this divine phenomenon. If Billy had never been possessed by the Mind Flayer, he may never have had the desire for the good or the courage to become a hero. But his brokenness -- the desperation, loss, and fear that he felt from being possessed by the Mind Flayer -- opened him up to receive Eleven’s reaching out to him. She reawakened in him the memory of his love for his mother, helping him find the courage to stand in the gap and become a hero.

Similarly, it is only when Eleven is broken and stripped of her supernatural gifts that she is able to call Billy on to heroism through the power of empathy and love. If it were not for the loss of her powers, Billy might not have had a chance at redemption.

To quote the Venerable Fulton Sheen, “Broken things are precious. We eat broken bread because we share in the death of Our Lord and His broken life. …A broken ship saved Paul and many other passengers on the way to Rome. Sometimes the only way the good Lord can get into some hearts is to break them.”

A broken Eleven saved Billy, and a broken Billy saved the world.

In the breaking of Billy Hargrove, and the pouring of his lifeblood out upon the floor of Starcourt Mall, there was a gift, and that gift was a resurrection: the saving of Billy’s soul, for no greater love has a man than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.