Sunday, December 30, 2018

Vocation, Self-Gift, and George Bailey

The concept of vocation is one that is often discussed in Catholic youth and young adult programs. Yet I remember as a teenager and a young adult that, while I appreciated the amount of attention the subject received, I still found these talks stressful and frustrating. I am a very methodical person, and I wanted a clear, cut-and-dry method of knowing to what vocation you were called, but there simply wasn't one. I went on retreats, spent time before the Blessed Sacrament, listened to plenty of conference speakers, read plenty of books on the lives of the saints, and hoped that God would make it crystal-clear what I was supposed to do with my life. Yet my path remained shrouded in mist. And so I finished high school and followed the typical middle-class child's career path, going first to college and then graduate school. This path, for lack of a better term, "felt" right, and so I didn't worry about it too much.

During my senior year of college I attended a lecture by actress-turned-Benedictine nun, Mother Dolores Hart. About five years later I read her autobiography. This book has proved life-changing for me in its insight into the concepts of discerning one's vocation and the cultivation of the interior life. One of the passages that truly stood out to me was a conversation between Dolores and the Reverend Mother:

"'You will find the will of God when you find what it is in your own heart that you know you must do. Don't look for God in some abstraction. The answer comes from within yourself, Dolores. What is it that you want?'

My [Dolores'] answer didn't come in a lightning bolt. I simply knew at that moment what Reverend Mother was trying to tell me when she insisted that I say what I wanted to do. If I was honest about my answer, I would give God a point of departure with which He could work." 

-- Mother Dolores Hart, OSB, The Ear of the Heart.

Mother Dolores Hart, OSB
Though I did not fully understand the words of Reverend Mother, the passage reminded me of the "Climb Every Mountain" scene from The Sound of Music. Something I began to realize was that, whatever God called me to do with my life, He actually did NOT want me to be miserable. I think people are afraid that God is going to call them to something that will make them miserable, when in fact God wants them to find meaning and joy and purpose in their life just as much they do. This doesn't mean that their life won't be difficult, or that their vocation won't involve sacrifice. It will involve tremendous sacrifice, but sacrifice that will in the end bring joy and fulfillment as each person works to bring about God's kingdom here on earth.

Here are a few more things I have learned recently from my own personal experience and from Dolores' reflections that I have found helpful and would like to reiterate here in the hopes that you might find them helpful if the idea of vocation has you frustrated and/or puzzled.

Listening to God

You need to set aside time to listen to God. God can't speak to you if you don't make time for stillness and prayer, and I am not talking about just going to Mass. I'm talking about spending time in the quiet before the Blessed Sacrament, or in the solitary beauty of nature, like a forest or a cemetery. Make time to actually be still and listen.

Don't Assume God Is Out to Get You

If God seems to be silent, or you are unsure what you're supposed to be doing at this point, be attentive but do not be anxious. God isn't playing games with you. He wants you to find your vocation even more than you want to find it. But He may be waiting for the right time. He doesn't want you to rush ahead, to actively pursue that vocation until it's time for you to do so. If this is the case, then look at your life and fulfill your present responsibilities, whether you are a student or you are in the workforce. In the meantime, what can you do right now to help prepare yourself for your vocation? Do you have a daily prayer life? Do you receive the sacraments frequently?


Pay attention to yourself and your tendencies. Your vocation is something that draws you out of yourself, out of your comfort zone and out of your selfish tendencies. Your vocation will challenge you to become a better person by calling you to service of others, whether it is your community (religious/parish/other) or your children and your spouse. It will not give you immediate gratification. In fact, it may make your life more difficult, more stressful, even less happy, but in the long term it will give you something far greater: a sense of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.

One of the best examples of this aspect of vocation is the character George Bailey from the classic film It's a Wonderful Life. George is an ambitious man who has dreamed since childhood of leaving his home to have a brilliant career filled with travel, success, and adventure. Yet he ends up staying in Bedford Falls, becoming a husband, father, and the head of the floundering Bailey Brothers' Building and Loan. Although he doesn't get the life he wanted or imagined, what George actually accomplishes in the tiny town of Bedford Falls is far more noble as he stands in the gap and shields the townsfolk from the greed and cruelty of Mr. Potter. We see George's frustration, yet we see him choose the path of virtuous self-denial again and again. And although he doesn't get to build bridges, he builds something far greater: a safe, loving community where poor families have dignity and opportunity. Although he doesn't get to travel and he doesn't make a great salary, he gets to see the small businesses thrive and to watch the success of his friends and neighbors, thanks to his financial assistance and his resistance to Potter. George sacrifices himself in every sense (physical, financial, professional, personal) and chooses the higher and the harder path, yet his life has far more meaning and fulfillment than had he left town and pursued his original ambitions.


Someone once asked a friend of mine, "Why would God give me something and then demand that of me?" To which my friend responded, "God gave the martyrs their very lives, and yet He demanded that of them."

God does not deal in halves. He gave all that we might have eternal life. Why shouldn't He demand our all in return? God can demand anything and everything of us -- our health, our sexuality, our talents, and, in the case of the martyrs, our very lifeblood. We owe all to Him (a terrifying and thrilling notion, to be sure).

A vocation may not necessarily require a bloody martyrdom, but it will in the end, demand the gift of your entire self. Yet you will find that is something to which you actually can give your entire self, and in this self-gift you will find meaning and fulfillment -- to paraphrase the poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a vocation might be likened to "a gauntlet with a gift in it."

May we have the courage to take up the gauntlet. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Achieving Old Maidenhood: A Tribute to My Piano Teacher

I lost one of my childhood mentors this passed November, namely my high school piano teacher, Miss Elizabeth Pastor, who at the time was professor of piano at Ashland University. She had a profound influence upon my decision to pursue an academic degree and a career in music, and, while we did not keep in touch after I went to college, I thought of her often with great fondness and I often reflect upon her influence upon me.

Miss Pastor made me realize how important music was in my life, and she pushed me to work towards a higher level of performance than I had previously thought I was capable of. It was because of her teaching that I chose first to minor in music (I began university majoring in English) and later chose music as my major, though as a student of organ rather than piano. 

In addition to her piano instruction, Miss Pastor inspired me with her vivacious personality and her generous spirit. She was the person I want to be when I grow up: a strong, independent, and creative woman with a deep heart. She was fiercely independent, and while she had received offers of marriage multiple times "from four good men," she confessed that she could never give up her freedom. She loved cats and had at least three -- I specifically remember her beautiful calico cat, Cleopatra. And she loved art, especially modern. Her house (which I believe she had designed herself) was a veritable museum, full of conversation pieces. There was a life-sized Tin Man and a giant dancing ladybug in her backyard, and a life-sized ostrich sculpture behind her piano, where Cleopatra liked to perch and watch as she taught our lessons.

When she saw potential in a student, “she dug right in and helped them pursue and develop it.” I worked hard to earn her praise, and when I got it, there was nothing like it. She was often brutally honest, but she had no time for half-assed work. She also gave me my first classical music CD, a recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons that, to this day, is my favorite recording of the work. She wanted us to pursue music at the college level if that was our ambition, but she was not a die-hard romantic. She would ask us how we intended to make a living after college, and wanted to make sure we had considered the practical side of the equation, and the risks involved in the music field. Although she was not a fan of the pipe organ, I like to think she was happy for me when I changed my major to music. I dedicated my dissertation to her as well as my parents and my first organ teacher, Dr. Paul M. Weber.

My Alma Mater, the Cleveland Institute of Music, where Miss Pastor had previously served as a piano instructor and a chamber music coach, recently sent out a moving tribute to her. The Dean wrote, "She is remembered fondly by generations of students influenced by her artistry, her teaching and her experience, both in piano and chamber music. She seemed to know every important artist of the day; perhaps in a foreshadowing of her career, as a child, her enthusiastic applause caught Rachmaninoff's attention after a recital, and he stopped to shake her hand before he left the stage." 

Miss Pastor was a woman who, to quote Miss Lavender from Chapter 23 of L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Avonlea, "achieved old maidenhood." To quote Anne Shirley, "You are one of those who have achieved it... and you've done it so beautifully that if every old maid were like you they would come into the fashion, I think." 

If you wish to read more about her, here is a link to her obituary in our local newspaper from this past November. 

Rest in peace, Miss Pastor. I miss you, and I thank God that He led me to you to help me find my own path as a church musician.

P.S. I think you would be please to know that I have adopted two fur-babies of my own, namely my kitties, Dobby and Dart. You would love them, I am sure. 

Thank you for everything.

Edit: Here is a small tribute put together by her friends and colleagues from Ashland University.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Celebrating The Boy Who Lived in 2018

In this hobbit hole, we celebrate Harry Potter's birthday, even if it's just me, which was the case this year. And so I stopped at one of my favorite cafés, picked up an almond croissant, lit a few Gryffindor themed candles, and wished Harry many happy returns of the day.

I was a late bloomer when it came to the Harry Potter fandom (well meaning but cautious parents). I was respectful of my parents' wishes, but I was resolved at a young age that someday I would read them and evaluate them for myself, and eventually I did just that... though it wasn't until I was in grad school (2012-2014ish).

Was it worth the wait?

Absolutely. I think J.K. Rowling has created a beautiful series that merits a place alongside the novels of Roald Dahl, Madeleine L'Engle, and Lois Lowry.  They are filled with Catholic themes and universal truths about love, sacrifice, and friendship. Indeed, I am not sure Rowling herself realizes how great the series actually is, as meager publications like Harry Potter & the Cursed Child appear on the literary scene (I do think the Fantastic Beasts franchise has been successful thus far, but it is still in the early stages, so we'll see...). 

But I digress. Ever since I have come to know them, I have resolved to preach the truth and beauty of the original series through subtle nods to the fandom in my home, my workplace, and not-so-subtle nods on social media. (Side note: I am convinced the devil hates Harry Potter, too, because he knows it's a great story and he'll do whatever it takes to subvert the message and keep kids from reading these books). 

Here are eight reasons why I love Harry Potter and why I believe it should be part of every kid's literary arsenal: 

#1. The core of the entire series is the triumph of sacrificial love, particularly as exemplified in a mother's love for her child.

#2. The beauty and joy of true friendship as seen in that of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, as well as their classmates.

#3. The beauty and joy of family, specifically the Weasleys, who are a fantastic example of the Church's concept of creating a domestic church community within the home. Haley Stewart over at Carrots for Michaelmas argues that the Weasley family is probably Catholic, and while I think this is a bit of a stretch, I have to admit that all the signs are there! 

#4. The absolute rejection of the pursuit of power.

#5. The beginning of a healthy conversation for young readers on grief and how to cope with the death of a loved one, first with Harry's parents, then with the death of Sirius.

#6. The need for compassion, empathy, and forgiveness, especially when dealing with complicated characters such as Severus Snape and the Malfoy family. It is essential to help young readers understand that no one is totally wicked, and that when people hurt others, it is often because they themselves have been left hurt or unloved. 

#7. Mister Rogers Moments (for lack of a better term) like this conversation between Professor McGonagall and Neville Longbottom: "It's high time your grandmother learned to be proud of the grandson she's got, rather than the one she thinks she ought to have." Kids need to know that they are loved just as they are, regardless of their abilities, their looks, other people's expectations, and so forth.

#8. That time in Book Seven where J.K. Rowling dropped a truth bomb about the dignity of the human person via Kingsley Shacklebolt: "I'd say that it's one short step from 'Wizards first' to 'Purebloods first,' then to Death Eaters ... We're all human, aren't we? Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving."

Here's to you, Harry and companions. Thank you for being there for us through thick and thin, and for reminding us, when things grow dark, to turn on the light. 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Why I Chose the Ordinariate Community to be My Parish

Zdzislaw Piotr Jasinski, Niedziela Palmowa, 1891.

I recently became a member of the Ordinariate parish in my community, and I am here to put in a good word for the good they are doing for the Catholic Church in their living of the three pillars of Catholic living: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi; that is, how we pray affects what we believe, both of which in turn have a direct influence how we live. The faltering of one leads to the faltering of the others. Vise versa, the equal upholding of these three pillars results in the thriving of the Church, and such is the case with my Ordinariate Community. 

Edit: For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term, the Ordinariate are former Episcopalians and Anglicans who have returned to full communion within the Roman Catholic Church, but who have been given permission to retain the liturgical traditions of the Anglican church, such as the celebration of Evensong.

Community -- Living

As a church organist, I have worked for several Protestant churches, and one thing that Protestants do particularly well is this: hospitality and fellowship. The people of the Ordinariate have brought their knack for these things along with them. They are warm, welcoming, honest, and boisterous, with beautiful, loud, adorable children, and they all look out for one another. They opens their hearts and their homes to one and all, for all persons are loved, welcomed, and respected in their midst.

Speaking from my own experience, from Day One they invited me to their coffee hours and to dinner get-togethers. And since my own family lives several hours away, my holidays are usually spent visiting and carousing with these good people! In many ways, they have become my extended family.

Formation -- Believing

One of the greatest problems in the Roman Catholic Church is the lack of catechesis in children and even more so in adults. The Ordinariate community addresses this through formation for both age groups every Sunday after mass throughout the year! For our community, formation topics have varied from Scripture to the writings of Benedict XVI to the lives of holy men and women like Chesterton and Edmund Campion. These formation sessions have been edifying for myself and those around me as young and old participate in insightful and sometimes lively discussions.

Liturgy – Worship

As a church organist, I am a bit of a liturgy geek, and I love the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The incense, the bells, the chant, the Latin – it all speaks to me in a way that Evensong speaks to many Anglicans and Episcopalians, like an “old familiar cloak passed through the generations. It is … [like] a rambling old house where everyone can find some corner to sit and think, trailing a few absent-minded of faith or doubt in its passing stream,” to quote Stephen Hough. It helps me to obtain a unique level of quiet, peace, and contemplation in prayer, and I will always reserve a special place in my heart for the Extraordinary Form for this reason.

However, the Ordinariate Form brings many of the elements of the Extraordinary form into the post-Vatican II era, as a great deal of the Ordinariate liturgy comprises a literal translation of the Extraordinary form from Latin into the vernacular. This translation is infused with prayers from the Anglican rite. The liturgy is transcendent and beautiful, a far cry from the anthropocentric worship which has overrun so many parishes.

In addition, the liturgical year perfuses the Ordinariate’s daily life from the treats at coffee hour (e.g. blackberries for Michaelmas) to the extra liturgical events like the blessing of candles for Candlemas. The result is a Catholic community infused with friendship, food, customs and traditions and a true sense of belonging (not unlike the wonderful world of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry for those of you who are Harry Potter fans).

If you are fortunate enough to live near an Ordinariate Community, I hope you will visit and get to know them! They are doing good things for the Catholic Church.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

From Merchant of Death to Earth's Greatest Defender: The Journey of Tony Stark

As of this year, Marvel marks a decade of producing superhero movies. While said movies boast an exceptionally broad cast of characters (outranking both The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter), it seems to me that the over-arching main character of the first ten years of the films has been my favorite genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist, Tony Stark.


Of all of the Avengers, Tony has certainly had one of the most interesting, and I dare say perhaps the most inspiring character arcs in the Marvel films. At the beginning of Iron Man, Tony is a veritable hedonist who, as the head of the weapons manufacturing company, owns the title “Merchant of Death” with shocking indifference. He is alone, and has no respect for himself or for others. However, a swift turn of events brings Tony's path of pleasure and success to a screeching halt as he finds himself mortally wounded in a cave in Afghanistan, a prisoner of a band of terrorists.

Thanks to his fellow captive, Dr. Yinsen, Tony not only survives, but also emerges from the cave a changed man with a new recognition of the value of life and a resolve to reform himself and his company. Naturally, this comes as a bit of a shock to many of his friends, but Tony remains stalwart in his new sense of purpose. He informs love interest Pepper Potts, “I shouldn’t be alive unless it was for a reason. I’m not crazy… I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it’s right.”  

However, conversion of life does not occur in a single moment. Virtue is a habit: a daily, even hourly, choosing of the good, the true, and the beautiful. And human nature being what it is, we often choose what is easy over what is right, ourselves over our neighbor, and the lie over the truth. Tony Stark is no exception. Throughout the films, he struggles and fails a great deal as he learns responsibility, vulnerability, and selflessness while simultaneously facing terrible forces including terminal illness, severe anxiety, ghosts from his past life, and enemies both domestic and alien. 

Nevertheless, Tony learns selflessness and commitment. He finds the courage to lay down his life when he fails to outsmart the bad guys, and he puts aside his ego to work alongside a band of imperfect, supernatural warriors to defend the Earth from those who would seek to destroy it. 

In Civil War and Spiderman: Homecoming, we see a side of Tony Stark that none of us expected to see: fatherhood. What began as a recruitment of the teenaged Peter Parker to the Avengers’ Civil War evolves into a mentorship as Peter clumsily attempts to prove himself to the impressive superhero, while Tony in turn attempts to simultaneously nurture and protect his protégé … with mixed results. It is frustrating and sweet to watch both parties as Tony tries to avoid the mistakes of his own father, while Peter’s ambition and pride hamper his good intentions. “I wanted to be just like you,” Peter confesses. Tony responds, “And I wanted you to be better,” suggesting his hope for Peter to eventually succeed him as one of the strongest and most brilliant defenders of Planet Earth. And, while Tony keeps the teenager at arm’s length by telling him he doesn’t need Peter’s death on his conscience, it is clear even in their first encounter in Queens that Tony is deeply moved by Peter’s honest, pure motives. 


At the end of Infinity War, Dr. Strange bargains away the Time Stone in exchange for Tony’s life. Moments later, Tony’s worst nightmare (confided to Nick Fury in Age of Ultron) comes true: Tony, powerless, has watched his loved ones die before his eyes, while he is left alive, and alone. 

However, Dr. Strange made it clear that, of the millions of possible outcomes in the battle between the Avengers and Thanos, there was only one outcome in which the Avengers emerged victorious, and apparently the role of Tony Stark in this scenario is of far greater value than the possession of one of the Infinity Stones.

This is extremely fitting. 

First of all, Tony Stark will have come full circle from the journey he began in that cave in Afghanistan. When Tony informed Yinsen that he had no family, Yinsen responded, "So you are a man who has everything and nothing." Nevertheless, Yinsen gave up his life for Tony because he saw his potential to become a hero. And, when Steve Roger called his bluff in Avengers, Tony proved himself ready to lay down on the wire to save his friends if cutting the wire wasn’t enough. Now Tony will make the “sacrifice play” once again, perhaps for the last time, for the family he holds dear -- namely, Pepper (and their unborn child??? hmmm...) and, in a way, Peter Parker -- so others can continue the mission of defending the Earth from those who would seek to enslave it.  

Second, every time Tony has been presented with seemingly impossible odds, he rises to the challenge with his intellect and resiliency, whether it’s outsmarting a villain of his own making (Age of Ultron, Iron Man 3), creating a new element (Iron Man 2), or battling aliens from another universe (Avengers). 

Third and finally, how fitting it would be if, when the destruction of half the universe was enacted through the sacrifice of a child for the sake of limitless power, its salvation was brought about through Tony laying down his life for the sake of the child he loves, namely Peter Parker? 

Needless to say, I am counting down the days until Avengers 4, and when that day comes, I am bringing tissues… lots of tissues. 

Friday, May 4, 2018

Darkest Hour 2017 and the Opposition of Evil

One of my new favorite pastimes post-graduate school is going to the movies. This year I went to see five of the nine films nominated for Best Picture this year: Darkest Hour, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Shape of Water, and The Post.

Of all of the films that were nominated for Best Picture that I saw this year, my personal favorite was Darkest Hour. I ended up going to see it on a whim with a friend on a Friday night this past winter. I remember listening to Oldman's delivery of Winston's famous speech, "We shall never surrender," my heart pounding in my chest, and feeling as though I was about to leap out of my seat and follow this bulldog of a man to the ends of the earth!

Gary Oldman's performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour was pure artistry, and Ben Mendelsohn's King George VI was the best portrayal of the most recent King of England that I have seen on film to date (which is saying a great deal as Colin Firth and Jared Harris each gave terrific performances of the role in The King's Speech and The Crown, respectively). While each actor had their own unique way of portraying the king's speech impediments and his strength of character, Ben has the advantage of very much looking the part. In fact, if one were to do a profile comparison of the two, the actor and the king himself are almost identical.

Left: Actor Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI in Darkest Hour 2017. Right: His Royal Highness, King George VI.
The movie unfolds over a matter of days, beginning with the appointment of Churchill as prime minister and following him into one of the most harrowing moments of the Second World War as the nation faces imminent invasion by Nazi Germany. Finding himself alone, Churchill must rally the  the nation to hold fast in its opposition to the Nazis rather than attempting to negotiate peace terms, even if it means the end of the British nation as they know it.

The film beautifully recreates the tension and desperation felt by many in those few days as the fate of Western civilization hung in the balance. As I watched the drama unfold, one couldn't help but wonder if one might have had Churchill's courage and clarity of mind if placed in his position. For it is a question worth considering: would it have been morally justifiable to submit to the Nazi regime, knowing about their obscene ideology, in exchange for the survival of what remained of the British nation, its culture, and its citizens? Was the evil of Nazism so profound that it had to be opposed at all costs?

Unlike many wars in the history of western civilization, the Second World War has the advantage of a clear delineation of good vs. evil, and in hindsight it is easy to say, "Of course, we must fight Nazism to the death," because we know what happened. But standing on the precipice of that defining moment in the history of the western world, not knowing the outcome, Churchill still had the courage to stand his ground and the foresight to realize that, in this case, there could be no compromise. In his own words:

"We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. ... We shall fight on the seas and oceans... We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!" -- Winston Churchill, "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" Speech, delivered on 4 June 1940 to the House of Commons. 

Darkest Hour serves as a beautiful and poignant reminder that death is not the worst thing that can happen to you, and that the good in this world is worth fighting for, even if it means you may lose.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Jim Hopper, Super Hero

We live in a time when the Harry Potter fandom is alive and well, and the fierce and salvific courage of Lily Potter, Mrs. Weasley, and so many other mothers and women in the Harry Potter world is a truth universally acknowledged. And rightfully so!

But I cannot help but ask: where are the fathers? If I were to make a list of smart, compassionate, fierce, and courageous dad and mom figures in current television shows and film, the latter would come to me much more quickly than the former. However, thanks to shows like Stranger Things and This is Us, I am happy to see a few father figures out there that can hold a candle to the strength and wisdom of iconic dad figures such as Mr. Walton, Mr. Ingalls, and Ben Cartwright.

*SPOILERS for Season 1 & 2*

I am speaking primarily of the junkie cop/troubled lawman, Police Chief Jim Hopper. From his stalwart courage as he brazenly breaks into Hawkins Lab to face the monsters lurking therein and his shrewd thinking as he slowly unravels the mystery of Will's disappearance to his fierce protection of Joyce and the kids of the Hawkins AV Club (especially Eleven), Hopper is certainly a force to be reckoned with in spite of his grumpy demeanor.

Now, I will certainly admit that in many respects Jim Hopper is at odds with the likes of Mr. Walton and Mr. Ingalls. While the latter are more akin to Odysseus, serving in many respects as examples of the 20th century "ideal man," Hopper is deeply flawed, from his drug and alcohol abuse to his raw, internal struggles with grief after the loss of his daughter.

Yet, Hopper quickly became one of my favorite heroes for that very reason. In the moment of crisis when his friends need him the most, Hopper overcomes his demons -- especially when he and Joyce venture into the Upside Down to find her son, and while he is having flashbacks of his daughter, he is there for her and helps to calm her fears in the face of uncertainty.

Hopper also has the courage to admit when he makes mistakes, and confesses when he is wrong -- as is the case with his mishandling of the protection of Eleven in season two. Similarly, in season two when Mike is angry at him for concealing Eleven, Hopper doesn't retaliate. Instead, he lets Mike be angry with him and lets him feel his (justified) emotion of betrayal. There is also a scene soon after Joyce has lost her boyfriend Bob (Bob Newbie, Super Hero!!!), and Hopper goes and sits with her. He doesn't say a word -- he comforts her simply with his presence.

In short, in the words of Haley from Carrots for Michaelmas, we need to remember that you don't have to be a saint to be a hero, and conquering your internal demons is just as noble and brave as fighting stranger beasts from alternate dimensions.

While I will always love the idealism of Mr.s Walton, Ingalls, and Cartwright, the honest, flawed courage of Jim Hopper serves as a comforting reminder that we are all imperfect but we are all called to heroism as spiritual fathers and mothers (even if we are not all called to literal fatherhood and motherhood in the sacrament of marriage). I hope that characters like Hopper and the Dad figures from This is Us signal the start of a trend in television where dads may have their demons, but they do not let these demons define them as they strive to fight for the good and protect those they love, flawed and valiant.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Beauty & the Beast 2017: The Great Lesson Revealed

(*Disclaimer: this is not a review of the 2017 film, but an rather an essay on the value of the story as portrayed in both Disney films.)

Last year, my friend and I were arguing about the story of Beauty & the Beast as portrayed in the Disney classic: “I hate the faulty logic behind the curse, that he [the Beast] must make someone else fall in love with him in order to prove that he has become truly selfless. It really ought to be the other way around, that his simple ability to love without expecting anything in return is what should free him.”

 I believe that G.K. Chesterton (pictured left) has the answer to his quibble with the story line: “There is the great lesson of Beauty and the Beast, that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.” However, like many brilliant Chesterton quotes, his words require a little unpacking. The first thing that came to mind when I encountered this quote was a passage from I John 4:19, “We love because He first loved us.” In other words, we fallen human beings are only able to love selflessly because Beauty Himself showed us the example of unconditional love. We were created by and for a God who is Love itself, and this Love became incarnate and died upon the cross to show us what real Love looks like. But how does this pertain to the story of Beauty and the Beast?


First of all, to be fair to my friend, the conditions for breaking the curse as described in the prologue are misleading. According to the narrator, “If [the Beast] could learn to love another, and earn her love in return before the last petal fell, the spell would be broken.” A more accurate description might read, “If he could learn to love by BEING LOVED by another, the spell would be broken.” Human beings are not born knowing how to love — it is something that we must be taught through knowledge and experience. In the new Disney 2017 adaptation, it becomes clear that the Beast’s selfishness and unkindness stem largely from his upbringing by his cruel father and from the neglect of the loving but fearful castle staff. What little the Beast had learned of sacrificial love from his mother was long forgotten on the fateful night when the enchantress cast her curse.


From the beginning, Belle represents the nature of love: she cannot help but love. This is apparent from the first time the audience meets her in her little village. Even though Belle is misunderstood and disliked by many of the locals, she is kind towards them and does what she can to help those in need — such as teaching a young girl to read, or giving a few coins to the mysterious beggar woman, Agatha.

After her imprisonment, Belle is the first to selflessly reach out to the Beast. This moment takes place after the Beast has fought off the pack of wolves and lays wounded and helpless in the snow. Belle has the chance to escape and regain her freedom. Instead, she brings the Beast safely home to the castle where she subsequently nurses him back to health.*

*Now, one might argue that it was the Beast who went after her first. This is true, but the Beast had everything and nothing to lose. His motives were still tainted by selfishness: Belle may have been the only chance he had to break the curse (it’s not as though women were just stumbling into the enchanted castle on a regular basis). If he died in the attempt, his life of misery would simply end.


It is in being loved by Belle that the Beast begins to learn to love selflessly. However, unconditional love is twofold, for it includes both the ability to love others and to love one’s self. According to C.S. Lewis, we all have an unloveable aspect within us, and we must learn to love even that (see Lewis’ The Four Loves). This is what is lacking in the Beast’s transformation. This is why the curse remains unbroken after he releases Belle at the end of the famous dance scene.  Although the staff exclaim, “It’s because she doesn’t love him!” this is clearly not true, for only moments ago we all saw the tears of sorrow and gratitude in Belle’s eyes as she says goodbye to him. The Beast has learned to love selflessly, but he has to embrace his own self-worth in order to break the curse.


To illustrate my point, let’s turn to another literary example. In Sigrid Undset’s novel Kristin Lavransdatter, we meet the married couple Ragnfrid and Lavrans. Lavrans is a charismatic leader, a virtuous man, and a loving husband. In many ways, he is an ideal match, yet Ragnfrid often comes across as cold and bitter towards him as well as her children.

Later on *SPOILER ALERT* the author reveals that Ragnfrid was unfaithful to her husband in the early years of their marriage. Ragnfrid regrets her sin, but her sense of shame is so great that she is unable to love/forgive herself, hence her bitterness. She cannot understand how someone like Lavrans (or even her children) can love her. She cannot see any redeeming quality within herself. This is particularly evident when Lavrans shows her any kind of gesture of love. These gestures make Ragnfrid feel uncomfortable, because in them she has to feel or experience his love, a love which she has yet to understand.


The Beast is similar to Ragnfrid: although he does not behave coldly towards Belle’s kindness, he has yet to forgive himself. He has repented, but he does not understand how someone could love him because of the wretchedness of his past life, which has brought him to his current state. For this reason, he falls into despair as soon as Belle leaves the castle. When Plumette proposes that Belle may return, he rejects the idea, saying, “No. I set her free.” In his mind her departure confirms that he is unloveable. He has yet to learn the power of unconditional love: the ability to see both the beauty and the ugliness within others and one’s self and to love both in spite of the ugliness. (Of course, the magic of unconditional love is that the ugliness of past sins vanishes in its transformative power!)

However, the Beast’s transformation is completed during Gaston’s attack. It is only when Belle returns that he begins to defend himself, as he realizes that he is worth saving. The live action film brings home this transformation more so than the original film: when the Beast traps Gaston, the villain begs, “Don’t hurt me, Beast!” The Beast responds, “I am not a Beast,” reaffirming that he has embraced his own value. His transformation is reinforced by his treatment of Gaston: instead of imprisoning him or killing him, he tells Gaston to leave and never come back. The Beast chooses love over hatred, sending his enemy away rather than taking his life.

The transformation of the Beast is not that Belle loves him but rather that the Beast can — and does — unconditionally love himself and others.


Does this undermine Belle’s profession of love in the pivotal moment of the film? Not necessarily. The Disney adaptation of Beauty & the Beast is among the first fairytale films to portray its heroine as a three-dimensional character, meaning that the allegory component of Beauty & the Beast is somewhat compromised. For this reason, Belle is portrayed as imperfect and even somewhat prideful. She, too, undergoes her own transformation over the course of the story, giving up her life plans to save her father and subsequently befriending the Beast and his enchanted companions. At the end of the film, it is clear by her actions that she reciprocates the Beast’s love (the audience has watched their relationship progress from friendship to romance throughout the second half of the film). However, love demands expression in actions and words. For this reason, it is significant that Belle declare her love verbally moments before the Beast’s transformation. For it is then that the the Beast, the wintry castle, and his enchanted companions exchange their mechanical and grotesque forms for their true selves. (Also, fun literary tangent/parallel: The castle is to the Beast what the portrait is to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, only the Beast has a happy ending).

This truth is portrayed in both the original Disney classic and in the 2017 remake. However, while I agree that the remake is imperfect, controversial, and sadly somewhat tainted by political agenda, I argue that it still possesses truth and beauty. Furthermore, the 2017 adaptation is far more successful than its predecessor in fleshing out the personal journey of the Beast over the course of the film. While the movie may require parental discretion, I believe that the remake of this beloved classic is worth watching and enjoying.

New Year's Resolution 2018: Resurgam

Well, I'm back.

I know, it's been a long time. Okay, a VERY long time. Sorry, blog. Sorry, readers.

But life throws things at you and dissertations had to be written, recitals performed, jobs obtained, relocations accomplished... you get the picture. But it's a new year, and I am resolved to resurrect this blog and post at least once a month. There are so many  things I want to write about... Beauty & the Beast 2017, Stranger Things, The Last Jedi, Catholicism & magical wardrobes, what outdoor hiking reveals to us about our need for God (thanks to my sister's travels on Appalachian Trail and Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life), and life post-grad school such as my new friend group, Tea Cozies of Doom... the list goes on... 

So, here's to a year of new beginnings, more adventures, and becoming better people along the way. And remember, to misquote Christopher Robin, you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think, for you can do all things in Christ who strengthens you.