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Archive for April, 2013

I am a firm believer that we become more human through dialogue with the “Other” — whether that means people with disabilities, the poor, societal outcasts, people from different cultures, or otherwise.

autistic childThat said, I believe that autism is definitely a phenomenon that “normals” can learn from — I’ve even written a book on the subject (hopefully, one that has been read by dozens of people on this planet).

But before I say anything about it, let’s see if anyone else has commented on this mysterious “other.”

Rain_Man_poster

Barry Levinson’s great 1988 film “Rain Man” is a fantastic example, even if it presents only one of the many faces of autism (how could the complexity of the autism spectrum ever be encapsulated into one movie?).

For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, it follows newly orphaned yuppie Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) as he gets to know Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), the institutionalized autistic savant brother he never knew existed.

Charlie discovers Raymond’s existence after the death of his estranged father, Sanford Babbitt.  In his will, Sanford left Charlie a car and some rose bushes, while leaving $3 million to a mental institution that is home to — you guessed it — Raymond Babbitt.

Charlie_Raymond

Charlie then kidnaps Raymond on a cross-country trip back to his home in Los Angeles, where he intends to start a custody hearing in order to obtain his share of his father’s estate.

Don’t worry, I have no intention of rehashing film’s plot, thereby spoiling it for those who have yet to see it, boring those who have seen it already, and wasting the time of those who have no interest in seeing it.

rain_man_535x320

What I want to talk about is the change we see in Charlie as the film progresses.  At first, he is a classic self-absorbed, spoiled twenty-something yuppie.  He is very rude to Raymond, whom he is only using to get his father’s money.

As for the money, he exhibits the typical possessiveness of sinful humanity with regard to the goods of this world by repeatedly asserting: “I deserve this.”

Rain ManBy the end of the film, after spending a great deal of time with Raymond, he is a changed man.  He becomes much more sensitive and caring, and he develops a protective instinct toward his brother.  Folks will recall the famous scene at the end pictured above (“I like having you for my big brother”).

In fact, though he continues to pursue the custody hearing, his motivation changes.  He is no longer interested in “getting his share” of his father’s estate.  What he wants now is to take Raymond out of the institution so that he can care for him personally, as a brother.

Granted, any opportunity to spend a great deal of time getting to know a fellow human being has the potential to change our hearts.  Man is made for fellowship, and fellowship both affirms our individuality and enhances our humanity.

But is there anything in Raymond’s autism that could have captured Charlie’s heart?

rainman diner

One thing we can point to is Raymond’s remarkable simplicity.  In a world where competition and competitiveness seem to complicate everything, where people are all too willing to hurt one another to get what they want, we have a man whose wants are very simple.

If he can watch “The People’s Court” at the same time every day, if whoever is with him can be bothered to make sure he has his favorite pair of underwear, if he can maintain a stable routine to get him through the day, then he is well-satisfied.

And as far as wanting to hurt anyone, he seems totally unfamiliar with the concept.

Personally, I would like to think that what Charlie learns from being with Raymond — and what most of us could learn from autistic individuals — is a sense of humility, which above all else involves a realistic understanding of oneself.  And though this is going to sound clichéd, it also leads to the freedom of appreciating the things that really matter.

All that said, I do intend to offer my own thoughts on the autism phenomenon in the coming days.  In the meantime, if you haven’t already, see “Rain Man.”

Top two photos from Wikipedia; remaining photos obtained through a Google image search

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Another video from Brett Fawcett, one of my favorite Youtubers.  Not agreeing or disagreeing, just thought this would be some interesting post-Earth-Day “food for thought.”

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tree

Yeah, it’s a little late in the day.  Earth Day will be over by the time many readers get to this.  Sorry to be so late…but life does tend to get busy, as you undoubtedly know.

I want to start with a quick reflection on biodegradable urns, which seem to have become popular of late.  My understanding is that these allow the ashes of the deceased to be mixed with seeds and planted in the ground so that, basically, our loved ones’ graves are marked with trees instead of headstones.

The rationale goes something like this: “If you become a tree, at least you’re giving back to the earth.  What good is your body if it’s just rotting in a casket?”

Can we say this perspective is understandable?  Sure.  But I would like to present another perspective for consideration.

We have all dealt with the death of loved ones at some time or other.  As we mourn their passing, we remember them as unique individuals, of the times we enjoyed with them, etc.  When you think about it, don’t your loved ones mean more to you, even in death, than material to be used as fertilizer?

tombstone

It is good for us to bury our dead.  It fulfills an emotional need that humans have to know that they can always come to a certain spot and say, “George (hypothetical name) is here.”  Whether we visit George’s tombstone every year on his birthday, bring flowers to lay on his grave, etc., we bear witness to a vitally important element of the human experience: When our fellow human beings die, our relationship with them goes on.  It changes, but it somehow abides.

Okay…I know this all probably sounds very anti-environmental, catering to human neediness rather than promoting good stewardship of our planet.  But this is not the case at all…and that’s precisely where I intend to bring my faith into this discussion.

We human beings are both physical and spiritual creatures.  So we can ask, “What is it our connection with the material world?”

The answer: Our bodies.

Resurrection

Christian belief in the Resurrection could hardly be any more affirmative of the body’s dignity and importance.  Jesus Christ, as true God and true man, rose bodily (see my post “Jesus’ Resurrected Body — What’s the Difference?” for more on this: https://intothedance.wordpress.com/2013/04/06/jesus-resurrected-body-whats-the-difference/) after having undergone death and burial.

As Christians, we bury our dead in the earth in coffins because this is our way of following Christ, Who endured bodily death before rising again.  This is a witness to the expectancy of our own resurrection, which will come at the end of time.

It is true that we will be raised to a whole new life — in fact, a whole new kind of life.  We are born into the natural world, but we are destined for the supernatural.

But does this mean that the material world doesn’t matter, or that we should neglect it?  Emphatically not.  Anyone who knows, for example, of our recent Pope Benedict XVI’s many addresses on the Christian responsibility to exercise good stewardship over creation will see this for the falsehood that it is.

Here is what the Catechism has to say about it:

The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation. (CCC 2415) (italics mine)

But the way to do this is not by allowing ourselves to be absorbed into the earth, thus in some sense forfeiting our humanity.  Rather, we must exercise the stewardship that God entrusted to Adam in Eden with a view to the coming of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1).

That said, I should return to my comment about humanity being made for something higher than this world.  This does not mean that we are destined to forever leave the earth behind.  Rather, the world we currently know becomes — to borrow an analogy that Peter Kreeft uses in his great book “Love is Stronger Than Death” — as the womb becomes for us after we are born.  It is still a part of our world, but it is just that — a part of something much, much bigger.

Kreeft cites an interesting passage from C.S. Lewis’ book “Miracles” in the fourth chapter of his book.  I’d like to close with that:

… Come out, look back, and then you will see … this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads. … Offer her neither worship nor contempt.  Meet her and know her.  If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch.  But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed.  The “vanity” to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence.  She will be cured, but cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilized.  We shall still be able to recognize our old enemy, friend, playfellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself.  And that will be a merry meeting.

All images from Wikipedia

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There were two films in 2012 dealing with U.S.-Middle East relations (at least, two that got people’s attention) — Ben Afleck’s “Argo” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Arguably, “Argo” is the one that attracted more attention (correct me if I’m wrong) — plus it won the Oscar for Best Picture.

But having seen and appreciated both films, I feel that “Zero Dark Thirty” is, by far, the better film.

Jessica-Chastain-in-Zero-Dark-Thirty-final-trailer

Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a young CIA operative recruited right out of high school within a few years of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.  For the better part of the decade, she engages exclusively and single-mindedly in the arduous quest to discover the whereabouts of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and bring about his capture.

In the end, as we well know, this quest is successful.  And as the film closes, we see Maya getting onto a helicopter and sitting silent for an extended period, tears welling up in her eyes — tears that can only come from the realization of a goal which one has spent years of great focus and effort to attain.

I don’t know much about the facts behind the story, so I couldn’t say which parts were accurate, which parts were for Hollywood flavor, etc.  But what I want to focus on with regard to this movie is the laser-beam focus exhibited by its main character and her team of co-workers, and what we can learn from it in our approach to the spiritual life.

DostoyevskyIn his classic novel “The Brothers Karamazov,” the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky — no doubt having shrewdly observed developing trends in society — places a profound insight into the mouth of one of his characters, the wise Fr. Zosima.  I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something to the effect that man would one day make the mistake of trying to find happiness in the “multiplication of his desires.”

Well, I think it is relatively clear that this is the case in our time.  Most of us in Western society either don’t really know what we want or mistakenly think we want things that deep down, we really don’t want.  We go through life with a lot of little goals and wants, but we tend not to have an overarching goal or value to tie everything together.

I suspect part of the reason for this is that we are a pleasure-seeking culture, and devoting oneself exclusively to one particular thing necessarily involves sacrifice and, often, a certain amount of pain.  It demands that certain goods be excluded for the sake of the chosen good.  Sadly, we are not very good at recognizing this fact, let alone acting on it.

Moneyball_PosterAnother great example of the principle of “single-mindedness” in film is the 2011 film “Moneyball,” which chronicles the determined efforts of General Manager Billy Bean to make the Oakland As a competitive team again.  With this clear goal in mind, he uses every means available to achieve the desired end.  If we look at the lives and work of some of the greatest leaders in history, we will find a similar singularity of focus.

ZeroDarkThirty2012PosterIn “Zero Dark Thirty,” the goal of the main character and her team is clear: The capture of Osama Bin Laden.  Maya proves she truly wants this not by talking about it or doing a little bit about it here and there, but by throwing her whole self into it.

Now I’m not arguing for the oft-repeated adage “the end justifies the means,” nor am I approving of all tactics depicted in this film as being used to bring about the capture of Bin Laden.  The use of torture is particularly problematic, and there could be a whole separate post on that.

What I mean to do is merely point out the difference that single-minded determination makes, with reference to how it can help someone resolved to make progress in the spiritual life.

Martha_Mary

And indeed, this is very much a part of classical Christian spirituality.  I like to use the Scripture passage in which Jesus eats at the home of Martha and Mary as an illustration:

(Martha) had a sister named Mary (who)* sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.  Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.”  The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10: 39-42) (italics mine)

Christ is the “one thing necessary.”  He is love itself, truth itself, goodness itself.  If we strive to put Him first, everything else will fall into place.

And if a team of CIA agents can expend so much energy and effort to capture and kill a terrorist leader, surely we can spend a little bit of ourselves to make room for the Loving Savior in our hearts so as to make the divine love, through our own lives, more present in the world.

* Included in source text

Image of Jessica Chastain obtained through a Google image search; remaining images from Wikipedia

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I haven’t given a link to Catholic blogger Brandon Vogt’s “Weekly Giveaways” in a long time.  This is his latest free offer.  For more information and to enter to win, go to http://brandonvogt.com/heaven-earth-giveaway/

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Batoni_sacred_heart

About 80 years ago, a Polish nun named Sister Maria Faustyna Kowalska received private revelations from Jesus Christ focusing on the depth of the Divine Mercy and the world’s desperate need for it.

(Note: These were private revelations and are therefore not required content of belief for Catholics; but the Catholic Church has approved these revelations as being worthy of belief, and they have inspired a wonderful devotion among the faithful.)

Why do I mention this?

Boston_Marathon_aftermath_people

Well, a couple of days ago a friend of mine was reading the latest on the bombings at the Boston Marathon.  This person has very young grandchildren, and commented on how scary it was to think that her grandchildren would be growing up in a world like the one we have today.

When Jesus appeared to Saint Faustyna, He promised that in a time of unprecedented evil, He would respond with unprecedented grace.

Since Saint Faustyna’s death in 1938, the troubles of the world seem to have grown progressively greater.  The world as a whole seems to be less safe, and the moral compass of Western civilization is clearly less steady.

At the same time, the Divine Mercy devotion has grown in popularity and in practice (especially since the pontificate of John Paul II, who has been called the “Divine Mercy Pope”).

As bad as things may seem, God has not forgotten us…far from it.  In fact His love and mercy are infinitely greater than we could ever hope for or imagine, and He only waits for us to turn to Him with our whole hearts.

Here is a link to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, for anyone who is interested:

http://www.ewtn.com/devotionals/mercy/dmmap.htm

Images from Wikipedia

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Boston_Marathon_explosions_(8652971845)Again, tragedy has visited our nation.  Due to a senseless act of violence, at least 141 people are wounded and three people have lost their lives at the world famous Boston Marathon.

The same holds true for this unhappy circumstance as for the tragedy at Newtown, CT — there are no words sufficient to address the why of something so awful.

And yet there is still hope, and we must never forget that.

…the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:5)

The Demidoff Altarpiece: Saint Stephen

I can’t help but reflect on the fact that the first readings for Catholic Daily Mass both yesterday (when the bombings happened) and today (which stands in the tragedy’s immediate wake) focus on the figure of St. Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr.  This morning, we read of his death by stoning for proclaiming the Gospel in Jerusalem:

As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”; and when he said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7: 59-60)

There is an obvious echo of Jesus’ words on the Cross here:

Father, forgive them, they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)

In the face of such things as what happened yesterday in Boston, we often feel either despair or a twisted desire for revenge.  We must resist despair by reminding ourselves that we can — indeed, must — always do something, however little, to overcome the dysfunction of the world, and we must resist the impulse toward revenge by remembering that evil only begets more evil; evil can only be overcome by good, hatred only by love.

May we be imitators of St. Stephen, who boldly and tirelessly defended Truth and Goodness Himself, yet confronted hatred with forgiveness.

Here is a related article — short, and well worth your time if you have a chance to read it: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/pope-urges-bostonians-to-combat-evil-with-good/

Images from Wikipedia

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Yesterday, I said I would bring some reflections on motherhood and womanhood as we draw closer to Mother’s Day. Thought I’d offer a little “preview” with this video, which features an interview for the History Channel’s recent miniseries “The Bible.”

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Happy Friday!

This marks the 100th post on “Into the Dance,” which seems to have garnered a small-to-modest following on WordPress.  I would be remiss if I didn’t express my gratitude to regular “Into the Dance” readers.  Thank you for your “likes,” comments, and above all for spending time with me as I share my modest thoughts on faith and culture.

Here are some of the topics I plan to cover in the near future:

1. Autism

autistic child

April is Autism Awareness Month.  Autism is a topic of special interest to me — in fact, I wrote a book on the subject a few years ago.  My intention is to write something about autism, disabilities in general, and/or both.

2. The Environment/Nature

forest

Earth Day also falls within the month of April, so expect to see something dealing with environmentalism, care for creation, and how this fits within the worldview of the Catholic Faith.

3. Motherhood and Womanhood

MotherI know, I know…you’re probably thinking: “This is a guy talking — what does he know about being a woman or a mother?”

I claim no “expertise” in this area.  But I thought it would be appropriate, in light of Pope Francis’ recent insightful comments on women as the first messengers of Jesus’ Resurrection, to reflect on the role of women in the life of humankind and in light of the Catholic Faith.  Look for something on this topic in the month of May, wherein falls Mother’s Day.

And finally, last but not least…

4. More Movies

ZeroDarkThirty2012Poster

Given that I set this blog up primarily as a forum for film reviews (though I did say I would be commenting on other topics as well), readers may be assured that more commentaries on films both recent and not-so-recent are on the way.

Again, thanks for your readership.  I will conclude with a final thought: The Christian story and the traditional Christian worldview are much deeper, richer, and relevant to the heart of every human person than most people realize.  If my posts have helped, if only in a very small way, to offer a glimpse into this…well, then I will consider my efforts blessed.

All images from Wikipedia

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There’s been a lot of buzz about MSNBC commentator Melissa Harris-Perry’s comment that children belong to the entire community, not just to their families.

Conservative critics have been quick to accuse Harris-Perry of undermining the crucial importance of the nuclear family, of advocating a socialist society in which parental rights are overturned by the societal aggregate.

Harris-Perry has since clarified her comments, indicating that she only meant that members of larger communities must acknowledge a certain shared responsibility for the wellbeing of the community’s children; in other words, while parental rights should always be respected, no one can disregard the good of children on the grounds that “they’re someone else’s kids, not mine.”

If this is in fact what she meant, then I would agree with her — at least broadly.  This interpretation of her comments leaves room for an essential truth about the family: The welfare of children is, in fact, first and foremost the responsibility of the parents — not the schools, not the community, and not even other relatives.

But this does not mean that communities don’t have a role to play.  Basically, it goes like this: Just as communities are important precisely because they are made up of unique individuals (rather than the individual getting his value from the collective), so also larger social units matter insofar as they affirm and uphold the domestic family.

The family is the foundational social unit; but for just this reason, it is important that families are embedded within social supports that encourage and aid their mission (including the primacy of parental authority in the education and upbringing of children).  Moreover, it is crucial that such supports are made up not merely of systems, but of a network of domestic families that can support one another.

It seems to me that there has been a reciprocal decline in both families and communities over the past half-century.  Many of my “elders” (and I use that term loosely, so please don’t anyone be offended) would probably attest to the fact that here in America, we had stronger communities when we had stronger families.  This was especially true of neighborhoods, where stay-at-home mothers would form familial networks while their husbands were off at work and their children were off at school.

It is true that we live in a society that is not the most conducive to the health of families.  From excessive and ubiquitous violence and sex in the media and entertainment industries to small town neighborhoods in which almost none of the neighbors know one another, we have a rather toxic environment in which family life and family values can thrive only with difficulty.

But I think the reverse is also true.  We, as a culture, have slacked off in our efforts to preserve the family because it has looked more and more like there is nothing to preserve.  As family life goes downhill (divorce, etc.), so does society’s sense of shared responsibility for the family.  And as society takes less responsibility for fostering family life, people are less motivated to pursue authentic family life…

…and on and on.  It’s one of those proverbial vicious circles.

Anyway, the Harris-Perry controversy just got me thinking about that.  When it comes to the family, I wish we would spend more time seriously and open-mindedly discussing these sorts of questions rather than getting into conversations that end with us labeling each other “narrow-minded right wing fanatics” and “radical left wing liberals.”

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