Sunday, June 25, 2006

my achilles heel

There lies before me a Pandora's box secured by a Gordian knot that will only be loosed, in the end, by ths sword of Damocles...

Friday, June 23, 2006

haurietis aquas

A friend of mine from high school was in semi-confessional mode last week - not an abnormal reaction to a fourth pint of Guinness - and claimed that one of the things that most turned him off to the Catholic faith as a boy (leading to his total disenfranchisement as an adult) was the abundance of garish images scattered about his grandmother's house. How any of that scary stuff could motivate one to devotion and Christian charity still puzzles him. Apparently, St.Agnes' fluttering eyelids, slashed throat and lamb-in-arms are, to this day, the principal deterrant to his return to the Church.

If you have an Italian or a Mexican woman in your family tree, you know the artwork.

St.Sebastian tied to a pillar with countless arrows obliquely piercing his body as he stares heavenward.
St.Christopher gasping for breath as a deceptively heavy Christ child robed in white, placidly perched on the drowning saint's shoulder raises his tiny hand in regal gesture.
St.George, a paleo-christian Lone Ranger mounted on a white stallion, skewers the fiery dragon, the hellish serpent, the infernal worm, the inflammable winged maggot.
St.Lawrence, patron of cooks, kneeling beside the pit of smouldering embers, dressed in his red dalmatic, palm sprig clenched to his chest yearning eyes cast beyond this world...

You get the idea.

Is it any wonder Hollywood has always found abundant material in Catholic tradition for its supernatural spook flicks? Just add a little more gore, contort that angelical visage a smidge and fill that gloomy church with candles, incense and otherworldly whispers and... wallah! A playroom worthy of Damien, Carrie and Emily Rose.

Imagery is key to Catholicism. We do not just profess our faith. We see it, we touch it, we hear it, we smell it, we taste it. We dress up and dramatize it on Christmas Eve and Good Friday. We make statues of our saints and use water, wine, bread and oil in our sacraments. We lay our hands on the sick, we wear roman collars and colorful vestments at Mass and one Wednesday a year we smear ashes on our forehead.

Can it go too far? Hmmm... As if 'too far' were still possible nowadays.

But yeah, it can. My mother has a plastic St.Philomena night-light that has creeped me out on more than one occasion. And that apparition-on-toast of the Virgin Mary? You tell me who the real loon is: the Ebay seller or the Ebay buyer.

But even the tacky, publicity-driven excesses drive home my point. Imagery is key.

Catholicism has always understood that body is the image, the expression of spirit. That the natural world is the chosen language of the spiritual world. That the reality we see is no less than a very elaborate invitation to the reality that escapes our senses.

Catholicism - and Christianity in general - originates from the Incarnation of the Word. The eternal, unfathomable knowledge that God has of Himself, the bottomless Truth that is the beginning and end of all we call real, the invisible Being that creates and sustains all being found, in the human form, the best way to make Himself known to the human world.

The choice of human imagery was His and all that is human finds new meaning therein.

Anyway, today - liturgical feast of the Sacred Heart - I was trying to work my way around the painting, framed in maroon velvet, that haunts my childhood recollections. A sallow, almost phantasmagoric Jesus with eyes that would make even a hardened hunter of baby seals feel pangs of compunction. He holds in his bony hand a heart, presumably his, crowned with thorns and a flame. It hurts and it burns.

I never really liked that painting, which was my grandmother's and surely her grandmother's before her. I am still not sure that I like it. But I am sure that my preaching on this day, in a parish named for the Sacred Heart, will not be better served by avoiding the imagery.

Like it or not, the image truly says it all.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

heed the omen

It was difficult to fit it in and nearly didn't happen at all, but the devil herself couldn't dissuade a determined Exorcist. I finally finished everything, the scheduled and the unscheduled, exited the parish council meeting at 8:50 and slunk away for the 9pm showing.

My namesake has returned.

I must preamble this by noting that there was a minor rush to the confessional on Monday (6.5.06) evening. Yes, four high school girls constitutes a 'rush' around here. And no, they weren't exactly sure what was supposed to go down on Tuesday. But they knew it was going to be bad. Beside, who am I to turn away eager clients?

The daily Mass crowd (hey, if four is a 'rush', eleven is so totally a 'crowd'...) expressed wonder that in Tuesday's mini-homily I stuck to the liturgy and didn't issue eschatological warnings.

Nope. While expectant mothers were either inducing or postponing labor to avoid the date and talkshows were queueing up the more loquacious elements of the Christian fringe, the Exorcist celebrated this fateful day in a mundane way. He treated himself to a movie.

The Omen (1976) was one of those movies that left a lasting impression on the Exorcist's fragile adolescent psyche. The remake was released on Tuesday, 6.6.06.

The Omen (2006) is very literally a remake of the original film. The plot, the dialogue, the insane supernatural silliness and the devilish mishaps triggered by the tyke with the blank stare are all faithful to their origin.

Mia Farrow out-creeps even Damien as the loony, spooky Mrs. Baylock. She is quite convincing in the role but, of course, she has dealt with problem children before.

The clergy in the movie is Catholic, naturally. I mean who else are you going to call with the anti-christ stirring things up? A Jehovah's Witness? The best you'll get out of him is a big "I told you so!!!".

Nuh-uh. No way. When there are apocalyptic threats afoot, homicidal nannies and rottweillers prowling around the cemetery you definitely want a Catholic priest.

This is, after all, what we do.

The portrayal of the clergy, in true Hollywood fashion, oscillates between ludicrous and horrific. It's the whacky satanic priests who switch kids to begin with, the pope is in bed with rosary beads and a glass of wine when he is told that the anti-christ survived the plot against his life (the Holy Father does not take the news well... he spills his wine), and the Grim Reaper could offer cosmetic tips to the monk found convalescing at the island monastery in Subiaco. Fr. Brennan is played by Pete Postlethwaite, a combination of Marty Feldman and Savonarola, and, hard as he tries to take Damien out, the rugrat from hell holds his own.

Now for what I didn't like about the movie.

I miss Gregory Peck.

Rachel Weisz was originally casted for the role of Katherine Thorn and would have offered mortal dread and subtle hysteria in place of Julia Stiles' anemic helplessness. Unfortunately, R.Weisz declined the role at the time because she was... expecting. Fate, it would seem, is not without a sense of irony.

The Exorcist would like to thank Damien, Mrs.Baylock, their snarling rottweilers and the dysfunctional clergy of Hollywood for an appropriately creepy 6.6.06.

Monday, June 05, 2006


The gathering of the Catholic movements with the Pope this past weekend to celebrate Pentecost was quite impressive. Around here it didn't get much press coverage - the guy eaten by the lions in Kiev actually got more print in some quarters - but EWTN transmitted the length and breadth of the ceremonies in St.Peter's live bot Saturday and Sunday.

Nearly half a million people by some estimates, most of them young, representing all the movements in the broad spectrum from Opus Dei to Sant'Edigio converged on Rome this year. Pope Benedict addressed the difficulties that accompany the growth and expansion of the movements that, in their diversity, have become a formidable evangelizing force for the Church. On the one hand, he asked bishops and parish priests to be open to the movements and allow them to work with and for the local church. On the other, he called on the movements to truly see themselves as part of the greater reality of the Church and to resist setting themselves up as a 'parallel magisterium' that tends to divide more than to unify.

At one stage in the coverage of Sunday's outdoor Mass, the commentator from Vatican radio who was doing the audio for the EWTN transmission pointed out a large yellow banner in the crowd that read "Regnum Christi movement with Pope Benedict XVI". She went on to say that the Regnum Christi is an interesting phenomenon because it is actually "a movement within a movement". She described it as a subset of the broader Opus Dei movement that is better known throughout the world.

Hmmm... A freudian slip, perhaps? Or maybe one of the lasting effects of the Da Vinci Code frenzy: even Vatican radio has come to suspect that the Opus secretly hides behind the least likely fronts?