Laughing our Way into the Month of Death

November is the month of death. There is no getting around it. The leaves wither and fall. The song birds fly away. The night grows longer and longer.

The Church knows that November is the month of death. We begin the month by praying to all the dead people in heaven. The next day we start praying for all the dead people in purgatory. We spend the whole month praying for the dead people in purgatory.

So November is the month of death. The month of death begins on All Hallows’ Eve, Halloween, the night before All Saints Day. Is Halloween a Christian holiday? Yes, it most certainly is.

What happens on Halloween? We confront ourselves with the darkest and most mysterious things: Death. Evil spirits. Putting on a costume poses the most murky question of all: Who am I really?

Then what happens? Laughter and merriment. On Halloween, little children dress up as skeletons, witches, ghosts, goblins—evil, dark things. Then they proceed to run around and giggle.

How is this possible? How is it that on Halloween night, the night when the month of death arrives, the night when darkness appears to conquer the sunlight—how is it that we make merry?

There is one reason. The one reason why we need not fear everything that is evil and dark. Only a Christian people could laugh during the dark night and have fun dressing up like demons. We are not afraid of these things.

Why? Because of Christ. The Light has come to the world, and the darkness has not overcome it. We Christians laugh at all the things before which pagans cower.

“Days go by…It’s all we’ve been given”

–Keith Urban. Nice song. (Click on the play button on the right of the linked screen to listen. I would have linked to the video, but it is beyond tedious. I almost lost all enthusiasm for the song when I watched 15 seconds of the video. Better just to listen.)

If it were my song, which of course it is not, I would add a phrase to the words “you better start livin’.”

In Christ would fit nicely. “You better start living in Christ.”

Here’s another good DVD to watch. It’s Shakespeare. It’s an extremely clever “modernization.” It is a Leonardo-DiCaprio movie without too much nasty violence. It’s from back when Leo was young and skinny and absolutely to-die-for. It is PG-13, so if you are a child, don’t even think about pressing the play button below.

The preview makes the movie look more violent and racier than it actually is. There is one scene worthy of a serious wince. (Which isn’t even listed on the parents’ advisory page–as if a man dressed as a woman is not something we would want to be advised about.) On the whole, though, it is a refreshingly clean movie, and splendidly done.

Etan Thomas of the Washington Wizards, back from heart surgery
Etan Thomas, a.k.a. the Poet, of the Washington Wizards, back from heart surgery

The NBA season begins, and the Moses beards are proliferating.

…And, getting back to the subject of “Deus ex machina”…

A good plot should contain all the elements necessary to resolve itself. Introducing characters late in the game, or unknown facts that change the whole situation–this is dramatically unsatisfying. Hence the perjorative phrase, “Deus ex machina,” God coming out of a machine to fix everything. Lame.

But, of course, Deus Himself has the prerogative to come out of the machina. It is not “Deus ex machina” for God Himself to intervene in history. He actually is Deus. He is allowed.

Is this what He has done? Is the salvation of the human race by Jesus Christ a case of “Deus ex machina”?

We had fallen from grace. We were condemned to death. We were living pretty miserable lives, punctuated by occasional glimpses of goodness and beauty. Very occasional.

People seasoned their dried fish with ashes. Other people threw babies into volcanoes or spilled out birds’ innards to foretell the future. There were not many virtues being practiced. And there was no hope for eternal life.

Then the perfect man came, lived the perfect life, offered the perfect sacrifice, and promised the perfect gifts to those who believe in Him.

Seems like a bolt out of the blue. Seems impossible to anticipate. Deus ex machina?

Well…there WERE prophesies. Many of the Jews hoped for the Messiah. Even non-Jews looked for Him. The coming of the Messiah was not completely unexpected.

Keith Urban
Keith Urban
But we have to try to go deeper, back to God’s original Creation of the world.

It is certainly true that the coming of Christ was by no means inevitable. His coming was a free gift, a total surprise, never earned, never merited–purely gracious. No one could have anticipated that God Himself would become a man.

But the following is also certainly true: His coming is the fulfillment of Creation. Christ did not enter the world as a foreigner. He came to “what was His own.” All of creation is “for Him.” (quoting Sts. John and Paul) He came not to destroy, but to fulfill. This (in my humble opinion) is the great insight that makes St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching so profound and so true.

The coming of God as a man is NOT Deus ex machina. It is the exact opposite: The coming of Christ makes everything else make sense. The plot was jumbled and confused BEFORE. Now it unfolds cleanly; now it fits; now it is beautiful.

…In other news: The Wizards just managed to lose their opener at home to the lowly New Jersey Nets. Good grief!

On the other hand: The Phillies just won the World Series!

Deus ex Machina for Measure

I know that everyone has been waiting with bated breath for the final word from Vienna about Isabela, Claudio, Angelo, and the disguised Duke of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

We left them all embroiled in the vice-grip of a riveting plot. The stern Angelo was succumbing to temptation and evil hypocrisy. The Duke, disguised as a friar, was trying to get the condemned Claudio to heaven. Claudio was afraid to die. The pure Isabel was heartbroken and confused.

Gulp. Yes, things are tense. But I am not gulping because things are tense. I enjoy tension. I make people tense all the time, without even trying. (Roman collars can have this effect.)

I am gulping because I dread what I must do. A letdown awaits you, dear reader, and I am afraid you are going to cancel your subscription, and I am going to have to send you your money back.

Before we continue, let us try to keep four things in mind. First: In Shakespeare’s day, there were only two kinds of plays, tragedies and comedies. At the end of a tragedy, multiple people died. At the end of a comedy, multiple people got married. Those were the options.

Second, Shakespeare was not paid to be consistent. He was paid to write exciting plays.

Third, Shakespeare never made up his stories out of whole cloth. He always used old tales, legends, or history, and then personalized the story. In all the earlier versions of the Measure for Measure story, Isabela gave in to Angelo in order to save her brother’s life.

Fourth, we need to recall the definition of “Deus ex machina.” This is when the plot of a drama is resolved by something coming out of the woodwork to resolve everything at the very moment when it seems impossible to make everything work out.

In Measure for Measure, Deus comes out of the machina right after we left off. As you recall, Claudio was begging Isabela to give in to Angelo’s villainous ultimatum, and Isabela was mortified.

At that moment the Duke (still dressed as a Franciscan) barges into the cell. He gets Claudio to sober up and face death manfully. Claudio begs his sister’s pardon for suggesting that she compromise her chastity. Then the Duke comes up with one of the most cockamamie plans of all time.

It turns out that the Lord Angelo had previously been engaged to marry a certain Marianna. But the young man heartlessly broke off the engagement when Marianna’s brother (and her dowry) were lost at sea.

The Duke proposes to Isabela that she trick Angelo into consummating marriage with Marianna. All she has to do is go to Angelo and pretend to accede to his conditions for Claudio’s pardon. The Duke will arrange a dark meeting place, and Marianna will appear in Isabela’s place. Then Claudio will be freed, Angelo will have to marry Marianna, and Isabel will be saved from impurity.

The plan unravels when Angelo orders Claudio’s death the following morning anyway. The Duke has to convince the jailer to send the head of a prisoner who died of a fever, but who looked like Claudio.

The Duke then re-enters the city, out of his disguise. Angelo is exposed as a hypocritical villain. Marianna marries him anyway. Claudio is saved and marries his beloved Julietta. Then the Duke proposes to Isabela!

In my humble opinion, this is a lame, totally unbelievable ending. Measure for Measure was the last comedy Shakespeare wrote. He seems to have been sick and tired of writing them.

There is one very beautiful image near the end of the play, however. At one point during the half-hour-long final scene, the Duke condemns Angelo to death for fornication (just as Angelo had condemned Claudio to death for the same crime.) Marianna begs for mercy for her husband, and she asks Isabela to join her.

At this point, Isabela does yet not know that Claudio has been spared by the Duke’s stratagem. She thinks that her brother has been executed. But she kneels down and begs for mercy for Angelo anyway.

After this, it is no wonder the Duke wants to marry her. But hopefully she will go to back to the convent and continue begging for mercy for all of us sinners.

Victory for an “Average” 6-2 Team?

Santana Moss
Santana Moss
After the Redskins beat the Detroit Lions this afternoon, John Riggins declared on ESPN Radio that the Redskins are “a mediocre, an average team.”

Cannot agree with him. To quote from the strange McDonald’s Monopoly commercial with Dwight Howard: The Redskins have mad skills.

Perhaps the Redskins lack ‘perfect focus.’ There is no doubt that the ‘Skins have a maddening tendency to march down the field, and then not put the ball in the endzone.

But winning games by hook or by crook counts as a mad skill. In fact, it is the most important skill in football.

Redksins' W gets double thumbs-up from mom
Redksins' W gets double thumbs-up from mom
The exciting thing is this: We play the 5-2 Pittsburgh Steelers next Monday night, November 3, the day after All Souls Day. Yeah, boy: Bring it on!

This WILL be an acid test of the mediocrity or non-mediocrity of the 6-2 Redskins. Monday Night Football. FedEx Field. 6-2 vs. 5-2. NFC vs. AFC. A huge game.

Time to start getting siked.

The Plot Thickens EVEN MORE

Back to Vienna…

When yesterday we left the plot of Measure for Measure: The lovable but weak Claudio was on death row, his fiancee pregnant, his sister Isabela shuttling between the convent and the court to plead for mercy. The Duke of Vienna was masquerading as a Franciscan, and the Duke’s deputy Angelo was poised to apply the death penalty to punish fornication for the first time in decades.

The “Lord Angelo” is thought by some of the Viennese citizens to be a paragon of austere virtue. Others regard him as frighteningly frigid. We overhear the following conversation about him on the street in Vienna:

“They say this Angelo was not made by man and woman after the downright way of creation. Is it true, think you? ”
“How should he be made, then?”
“Some report a sea-maid spawned him; some, that he was begot between two stock-fishes. But it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice; that I know to be true.”

The vice-grip of the plot of Measure for Measure tightens a bit more:

Isabela returns to Angelo’s court, hoping that she has convinced him to be merciful and spare her condemned brother’s life. We know that the stern Angelo is burning with desire for the beautiful aspiring nun.

Angelo stammeringly proposes to Isabela that she might save Claudio. How? By letting Lord Angelo have his way with her.

Isabela refuses–just as adamantly as Angelo has refused mercy to her brother. She threatens to expose Angelo’s hypocritical villainy, but he convinces her that she will never be believed. She runs off, desperate for someone to sympathize with her.

Meanwhile, the Duke masquerading as a priest has visited Claudio to help prepare him to meet his Maker. Claudio has resolved to make a holy death.

Isabela arrives to visit her brother in his cell. When she sees how courageously Claudio faces death, she divulges Angelo’s evil proposition. Claudio collapses and begs her to give in, so that he might live.

Angelo gives Isabela her choice...
Angelo gives Isabela her choice...
…In my book, this is the high point of the drama of this play. All the play’s themes have been stretched to a point of perfect tension:

Laxity breeds endemic vice. But severity masks hypocrisy. Without moral absolutes, no one can know what to do in the face of the evil in this world. But when the law requires perfection, it becomes a tyrant. Good hearts aspire to be noble and bigger than themselves. But they collapse under the weight of passion–especially fear.

With Claudio blubbering for his life and Isabela livid, all of these themes are hanging in the balance. Then the disguised Duke emerges from his hiding place in Claudio’s cell…

Stay tuned!

Monks and Drama in Vienna

Vienna, Austria
Vienna, Austria
I am the proud owner of a small collection of nice vestments to wear for the sacred ceremonies of the Church.

For the past four years, I have also been the custodian of a much larger collection of fine vestments. It is actually TWO collections. Earlier in this unit decade of the twenty-first century, two of our Washington priests decided to resign their pastoral assignments and become monks.

Both of these priests own impressive collections of vestments. Both of them gave their collections to me for safe keeping. I am allowed to use them, and to loan them to other priests to use.

Someday, God forbid, one or both of these priests might decide that they want the vestments back. Please pray that this day never comes.

Both of these brother priests entered an Austrian monastery called Stift Klosterneuberg. Stift is the German word for monastery. Some of us refer to the place as Lobster Newberg.

Anyway, Klosterneuberg is located just outside Vienna.

I would like to do something special in honor of these dear monks, whose vestments I have in my (hopefully perpetual) care. So I am going to give you a profound and captivating essay on Shakespeare’s gripping play Measure for Measure, which is set in Vienna!

The problem is that I do not have time right now to give you the entire essay. These things take hours. Also, I have not yet come up with the profound part or the captivating part.

Let us make a start nonetheless. Just in case you have not recently had a chance to review the play, I will begin by attempting to summarize the plot. Some of the speeches in the play are a little stilted and hard to follow. But the plot is intense–seriously intense.

As the play opens, Vienna has become a city of loose morals. The laws against prostitution have not been enforced for many years.

At this moment, the Duke of Vienna begins a series of strange maneuvers. Throughout the play, he does a number of inexplicable things, as we shall see.

The Duke summons his son Angelo, barely a grown man, and informs him that he is in charge of the city for the foreseeable future. The Duke claims that he MUST go elsewhere. Angelo protests, citing his lack of practical experience, but the Duke insists and leaves the city immediately.

lobster newberg
lobster newberg
Soon we learn that a much-beloved young man of Vienna, Claudio, has been arrested because his fiancée Julietta is pregnant. The now-reigning Angelo intends to make an example of Claudio. Angelo applies the long-standing but never-enforced law against fornication to the case. Under the law, Claudio is subject to the death penalty. Angelo orders his execution.

Meanwhile, the Duke, continuing his inexplicable behavior, leads everyone to believe that he is in Poland. Secretly he takes the habit of a Franciscan and returns in this disguise to Vienna.

The condemned Claudio has a sister named Isabel, who is a postulant in a cloistered convent. (They were ALL cloistered back then. A postulant is a young woman preparing to enter the order, but who has not yet taken the full habit.) Claudio’s friend runs to her and begs her to go to Angelo to implore mercy for her brother.

Lucio begs Isabel to intervene for Claudio's life
Lucio begs Isabel to intervene for Claudio's life
Isabel appears before Angelo and entreats him to spare her condemned brother. At first the stern Angelo is adamant and immovable, but then he mellows and tells the lovely Isabel to come back the next day. After Isabel departs, Angelo admits in a private soliloquy that he is consumed with desire for her.

Ahh…is the plot not THICK?

Will the weak yet lovable Claudio be saved? Will the stern Angelo learn mercy? Will he learn to be human? Will Isabel enter the convent? Will she fall in love?

Can justice and mercy co-exist? Can the law prevent vice without crushing human nature?

Coming soon to Preacher and Big Daddy: Answers to all these questions and more! Stay tuned.

P.S. It is hard for me to get too fired-up about this World Series. Is anybody rooting for one of these teams?

The Beginning of the New Testament

As the year of St. Paul marches on, we have now begun to read at Sunday Mass from his first letter to the Thessalonians. Let us take this opportunity to reflect on a couple of important points about St. Paul’s letters. First, though, let us recall the circumstances under which St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians.

After St. Paul preached the Gospel in Philippi, he left the church there in good order, and he headed south to Thessalonica.

Like Philippi, Thessalonica was an old Greek city named after a relative of Alexander the Great–his sister Thessaloniki. Unlike Philippi, at the time of St. Paul, Thessalonica was home to a large number of Jews, and there was a synagogue for St Paul to go to and announce that the Messiah had come.

As had happened at Philippi, jealous Jews denounced St. Paul to the Roman authorities. “This man says there is a king other than Caesar, named Jesus.” To keep him from being put into prison, the Christians rushed the Apostle out of the city quickly. St. Paul went south to Athens, then to Corinth. He remained in Corinth for a year and a half.

While he was in Corinth, St. Paul worried about the Thessalonian Christians. He knew they faced persecution from the same Jews who had denounced him. Since he had to leave Thessalonica so suddenly, he had not had the chance to finish teaching the new Christians everything he had a mind to teach them. St. Paul sent St. Timothy to Thessalonica to check up on things.

Map of Modern Greece.  Thessalonica is now Saloniki
Map of Modern Greece. Thessalonica is now Saloniki
St. Timothy reported that the Thessalonian Christians were bearing up well under persecution, but that they were confused about life after death and about the second coming of Christ. So St. Paul dictated a letter to them to explain.

This was the beginning of something enormously important. It was the beginning of the New Testament. St. Paul was in Corinth about 18 years after the Lord Jesus ascended into heaven. Meanwhile in the Holy Land, St. Matthew may have been writing his gospel at the same time. This was the beginning of the writing of the most important collection of little books in the history of the world.

Let us pause to consider two important facts about this moment when St. Paul began to dictate First Thessalonians, and the writing of the New Testament began.

The first fact is this: St. Paul did NOT set out to compose “the New Testament.” When he began to write, what the Apostle had in mind was the Thessalonian Christians, what they knew and did not know. In other words, when St. Paul wrote the letter he was not launching a project. He was already in the middle of a project: He was executing the mission that the Lord had given him, to preach the Gospel of Christ to the ends of the earth.

In other words, the books of the New Testament were written because the Church was already busy doing what She is supposed to do until the end of time. The writings of the New Testament bear witness to the Sacred Tradition of the Church, which the Lord Jesus entrusted to His Holy Apostles at the very beginning. In order to understand this testimony, we of course need the guidance of the successors of the Apostles, the Pope and the bishops.

Saloniki, or Thessaloniki--modern Thessalonica
Saloniki, or Thessaloniki--modern Thessalonica
The second fact to mediate on is this. When St. Paul originally preached in Thessalonica and wherever he went, those who heard him and believed accepted his words not as the teaching of a man, but as the revelation of Almighty God Himself.

There is no way for Christian teaching to make sense if it is not given on divine authority. It cannot be a matter of opinion. St. Paul did not teach that Christ is the Savior for the people who want Him to be the Savior. No: All the Apostles taught that Christ is the one, true God. The Church continues to teach the same. Our faith is not in human teaching, but in divine revelation.

In this day and age we frequently must confront the hostility of a different religion. This religion tries to teach that God does not speak clearly, and if you say that He does, you are close-minded. This other religion tries to tell the Church that the Catholic religion is one among many religions, no better than any other.

There are even Catholics who have been confused by the teaching of this other religion into thinking that if they believe that the Gospel is the true Word of God Himself, then they might not be able to relate other people who do not believe this. And, of course, relating to others with an open heart and mind is a crucial part of being a good Christian.

There is a great irony about this confusion regarding how to be open-minded. The idea that being wishy-washy makes you open-minded is precisely the opposite of the truth.

St. Paul himself proves the point. Has the world ever seen a man more adept at relating to people than St. Paul? He is one of the most genuinely open-minded people of all time. He successfully communicated with more different kinds of people than just about anyone ever has. He “became all things to all men.”

May he intercede for us that we might understand his teaching more deeply and imitate his love and zeal more perfectly.

Tuesday Morning Napoleon

Napoleon Dynamite
Napoleon Dynamite

Our peace is found in God’s will.

He has given us talents to use. “Let your light shine so brightly before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven,” says the Lord.

People who know and love us help us to become aware of the talents we possess.

For example: anyskills.wav

Napoleon Dynamite is a pretty funny movie.

Here are a couple other good movies, worth checking out on DVD:

“One Night with the King” about Queen Esther

“Juno.” Wonderful pro-life movie, but with some bad words and references to sins. I loved this movie as much as I have loved any movie in a long, long time.

Speaking of bad words…if you don’t mind A LOT of them–and a lot of violence–“The Departed” is a good DVD to watch, assuming you are over 21. (Plus, you have to shield your eyes for one gratuitous impure scene.)

Alec Baldwin, notorious liberal and all-around objectionable individual
Alec Baldwin, notorious liberal and all-around objectionable individual

One of the most spirited spewers of bad words in that movie is Alec Baldwin. No one can curse with as much panache.

Not the most admirable man who ever lived. But one must give credit where it is due.

I haven’t watched Saturday Night Live in YEARS; it comes on WAY past my bedtime. If you are interested in such things as politicians appearing on the show, and Sarah Palin, and celebrity gossip, then I think you will find that Alec Baldwin actually makes a lot of sense in his recent blog-post. He is responding to fellow-lefties who criticized him for giving the time of day to the evil Sarah Palin and treating her like a legitimate human being.

October 19, 2008

St. Isaac Jogues with missing fingers
St. Isaac Jogues with missing fingers
Generally speaking, on Sundays we do not keep the saints’ feast days. So today we did not keep the feast of the North American Martyrs. Nonetheless, it is good for us to call them to mind. Their blood shed for the faith sanctified this continent and made it a fertile ground for the Church.

They were Jesuits and lay men who accompanied the Jesuits to New France in the early 17th century. The two most famous among them are St. Isaac Jogues and St. John de Brebeuf. St. Isaac Jogues had two of his fingers bitten off by hostile Indians. He was given special permission by the Pope to continue to say Mass. Then he asked to be allowed to go back to North America, where he was killed.

There are two beautiful shrines of the North American Martyrs, both of which are very much worth visiting. One is located near Albany, New York, in Auriesville. This is the place where St. Isaac Jogues was killed.

North American Martyrs Shrine in Midland, Ontario
North American Martyrs Shrine in Midland, Ontario
Even more wonderful is the shrine in Midland, Ontario, north of Toronto. This is where St. John de Brebeuf was killed.

In addition to the beautiful shrine, there is also a reconstruction of the original Jesuit mission, which is evocative down to the last detail.

The Hurons lived a rough life there. They liked to season the dried fish they ate in the winter, but of course they had no salt. So they used ashes from the fire.

Clinton Portis and Co.
Clinton Portis and Co.

On a much more mundane note: Clinton Portis is awesome! It was not a pretty game. We will, however, take the W.

And poor, poor Dallas…losing to those scrubs, the St. Louis Rams. Maybe the Rams are actually not so bad after all.