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Posts Tagged ‘Death’

Yesterday we commemorated the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross; today, His Sabbath Rest in the tomb.

“Commemorate” may not be the most fitting word, for it is not just a matter of “memory” in the conventionally accepted sense (more…)

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I said last week that I’d soon revisit the vampire craze in popular media.  Well, here is my revisitation!

I hope I’m not overusing the Fr. Barron videos.  That’s not my intention — it’s just that Fr. Barron has a unique way of getting to the heart of these cultural trends and issues, and his $0.02 on vampires are probably worth more than mine.

Just a quick note: This video was made back in 2009; since then, Anne Rice’s views and literary pursuits have changed somewhat…

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Before I conclude my ruminations on “The Dark Knight Rises,” I wanted to spend some time explaining the Catholic understanding of the relationship between the body and the soul.  We’ll just be skimming the surface, but it will be enough for the topic we’re dealing with.

René_Descartes

Actually, it’s probably a good idea to start with what the body/soul relationship is not.  A common misconception — one that, while having existed in some form or other for thousands of years, was really codified in the West by seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes — is the “ghost in the machine” view, which essentially says is that only the soul is the real person, whereas the body is just a shell.  Death, in this context, is merely the soul’s escape from the body, which can be cast off like used clothing.

Sleepy Hollow

And that’s one of the more generous conceptions of the body that are out there.  There are older gnostic philosophies that see the body — and with it, the material world — as evil, illusory, and to be shunned.

Unfortunately, there have been forms of Puritanism that have tried to infuse Christianity with similar conceptions of the body.

But from a Catholic viewpoint, this is far from the truth.  As a human being, your body is more than just a “shell.”  It is, in fact, you.

True, the body is not the whole of the human person — man has a spiritual as well as a physical component.  But the uniqueness of the human being among all living beings God created is that we are a blend of both the physical and the spiritual.  We are neither pure matter like animals and inanimate objects, nor pure spirits like the angels.

It is true that the soul is separated from the body at death.  But we have to remember that this is not man’s natural state.  It is a consequence of original sin.

As Christians, we believe that the soul is redeemed in Baptism.  The body, however, is not yet redeemed; it must go through natural death.

But this is not because the body does not share in redemption.  Indeed, at the end of time every human being will share in the resurrection of the body…

Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2 — NIV).

This discussion opens up a host of other possible discussions about the nature of the soul, eternal life, etc.  But again, I’m just providing a snapshot of the subject to prepare for the final installment of my “Batman” commentaries (which will deal with a proper understanding of ultimate hope and how it relates to this world).

I still intend to have that available by tomorrow night.  But as always, if things change, I’ll let you know.  Thanks for reading.

Images from Wikipedia

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DarkKnightRisesPrisonThis is my second post on Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises.”  For part one, go to http://www.intothedance.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/dvd-review-the-dark-knight-rises/

Hope is a powerful thing.  The villain Bane (Tom Hardy) takes advantage of people’s inner sense of hope with his hypnotizing promises of a utopian society run by “the People” and free from the corruption of public authorities and bureaucrats.

Meanwhile, a “de-suited” Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is held captive in a dark, dingy, primitive-looking underground prison in an unidentified foreign land.  What’s interesting about this particular prison is that there is, high overhead, an opening.  At the height of the weird, spiraling wall extending upwards from the pit to which prisoners are consigned is a tiny glimpse of the outside world, of freedom…of the possibility of escape.

In other words, this is what you might call a round window of hope.

But in order to get to it, the prisoners have to climb the wall.  How easy is this?  Well, in fact, it’s very nearly impossible…so much so that only one person is known to have successfully escaped in the past.

Nevertheless, people keep trying.  Not only that, but the prisoners wait in fervent hope that one day, one of their own will climb to freedom.

I took this as a symbol, in its own way, of the universal (if unnamed and often unclear) hope that has lived in the heart of every person from the making of the world, and will live in the heart of every person unto the breaking of the world.

That hope cannot be described as anything other than the hope for salvation, the hope for deliverance from an existence in which the reality of death and decay seems to have the final word.

BeowulfI think that in some ways, this takes us to the root of humanity’s perennial fascination with hero figures.  Throughout history, peoples, nations, and cultures have celebrated individual persons — fictional or historical — who somehow embody their hopes and dreams.  By overcoming obstacles against all odds, by attaining honor and glory, such figures give shape to people’s hopes and keep them alive.

This reality casts light on the chanting of Wayne’s fellow prisoners: “Rise! Rise! Rise!”  Having been in darkness for a very long time, they yearn to see someone escape into the light.  Whoever that person is, he will give them — and I apologize for being redundant — hope.

And so when Wayne finally escapes, there is much rejoicing.

Ascension

While watching the prison scenes in “The Dark Knight Rises,” I was reminded of Jesus Christ almost immediately:

No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man (John 3:13).

Mankind, like the prisoners in Nolan’s film, wants to know at least one person who has “escaped” — one person who has ascended beyond death, through the “round window of hope” into a new life.

To this day, the Church proclaims the One Who has realized man’s hopes.  At the same time, She reminds the world that this hope is transcendent in nature.  We sinful human beings are in a trap against which we and the resources that are available to us in this fallen world are totally powerless.

Having “come down from heaven” as God and “gone up to heaven” as both God and man, Jesus Christ raises us to a new life, instilling in our hearts even now the “first fruits” of a transcendent hope that will be fulfilled at the end of our lives and at the end of human history, beyond this present world and beyond all of our expectations.

In fact, by His sacrifice on the Cross, He has turned death itself from the ultimate doom of mankind into the very “round window of hope,” the very place of passage, whereby we will come to freedom.

But does this mean that the world, the physical body (from which our souls depart at death), and the concerns that pertain to the here-and-now are bad, irrelevant, or insignificant?

As St. Paul was often fond of saying, “By no means!”

But I think I’ve rambled on long enough for one night.  I’ll come back to this issue in relation to “The Dark Knight Rises” later.  It should be ready within a week’s time, so keep your eyes peeled.

Top photo obtained through a Google image search; “Beowulf” painting by J.R. Skelton and “Ascension of Christ” by Garofalo from Wikipedia.

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My heart is heavy tonight, and I know I’m not alone.  Twenty of my little brothers and sisters, and six of my adult brethren, were killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

I have no words.  This is unconscionable, and the fact that this sort of thing has happened before makes it no less so.  This, indeed, is the dark side of the great “dance” of which we are all a part.

I flatter myself if I suppose that any of those directly affected by this tragedy will possibly read this post, but on the off-chance that this does happen, let me just say this: I am so very sorry.  I know only too well that I cannot offer adequate consolation — just know that I love you, and I love the children who were taken from you.  And when I enter into the Presence of the Lord in prayer, I will bring you and them with me.

While I can’t pretend to have the answers people are looking for, I can offer some insight into how a Catholic makes sense of things like this.  It’s only natural to ask why God allows things like this to happen.  I can do no better than to cite one of the great saints of our Tradition:

Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man, God does nothing without this goal in mind (St. Catherine of Siena, “Dialogue on Providence”).

Life is more than the short and often troubled time we have here on this earth, and until the end we will not know the full purpose of God.  But no matter what happens, we need never doubt the unfathomable, tender love of God for all humanity.  He, and He alone, knows how to bring the greater good out of even very great evil…and He will do so.

Love and peace suffered a defeat today.  The temptation to give into despair and cynicism is very strong.  But please consider this: If we give into such an attitude, the enemy will have won.  Whether by acting directly or indirectly, the devil — by whom sin, evil, and suffering entered into human history — wants to throw tragedies, disasters, and other obstacles in our way so that we will give up on goodness, on hope.  Let’s not give him such an easy victory.  Instead, let us use this tragedy to spur ourselves onward in the pursuit of peace, in the building of a more humane and just world.

St John of the Cross

Today was the Feast Day of St. John of the Cross, whose reflections on the place of suffering in the spiritual life are perhaps the most famous among those of all the saints.  I would like to think that this is no accident, but rather a providential assurance that God remains in control.

What we need to realize is this: In the last analysis, God does not allow us to suffer because He does not care about us, because He is unaware of or distant from our sufferings, or because we are so bad that He wants vengeance upon us.  Christ the King reigns from the Cross, and He loves us so very much that He invites us to come up to the cross with him.  Not because “misery loves company,” but because the cross is the way to eternal life, to unending joy.

And yes, even those who lost their lives in this tragedy are included in this great mystery of God’s redemptive love.  So let us mourn, but not despair.  The will of the One Who turns the starts is that all tears be one day turned to joy.

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Ottway

So let’s look at “nature as death” in “The Grey,” which does seem — as Fr. Barron argues — to take the gloomy, atheistic existentialist view of human life and death.

But let’s look closer.  Does the plight of the stranded oilmen do any good in the end?  Does it do the job of a sparring partner and give the men opportunities they might not have had before?

I could explore this question at great length, but I will limit myself to this observation: The experience leads Ottway to prayer.

Ottway_Prayer

About halfway through the movie, Ottway identifies himself as an atheist.  But as the film draws to a close and he finds himself desperately clinging to life, he finally shouts out a prayer straight from the heart (he never uses the name “God,” but we can reasonably assume that’s Who he’s talking to).

The gist of the prayer is this: “If you are there, help me.”

Ottway’s prayer, in its details, does strike the viewer as somewhat irreverent — but it still suggests the beginning of some kind of religious hope.  What he ultimately does with this hope is up to him, but its very presence assures us that he and his fellow strugglers have not necessarily suffered in vain.

Here I will turn once again to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

With creation, God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end. Recognizing this utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence (CCC 301 — bold added).

Yet how often do we come to this recognition, which brings “wisdom and freedom, joy and confidence”?  When things are going well for us, don’t we tend to think of ourselves as self-sufficient?  And in the long run, doesn’t this just make us lonely and miserable?

Grey_Campfire

An earlier scene shows the men huddled around a campfire and talking about their pasts, their lives, and their families.  Examination of one’s life in the face of a trial is not uncommon.  How many people, when they are trapped in a burning building or stranded without hope of rescue, look back on their lives and realize how little they appreciated their loved ones, how much they overvalued material possessions, how much kinder or more charitable they could have been in life, etc?

From the eternal perspective, the opportunity to come to terms with these things can be a far greater blessing than a lifetime without suffering or hardship.

God never promises us that we will not have trouble in this world.  But He does speak of the turmoil of the created order as “birth pangs” of the “new heavens and new earth” that the People of God will inherit.

Yes, nature and the world’s troubles warn human beings of the tragic end their souls will meet with if they continue down the road of sin; but for those who trust in God’s mercy — manifested in Christ, Who took suffering and death upon Himself and transformed them into redemptive realities — even the trials of this passing world will ultimately serve as means to their eternal reward.

How surely?  As surely as the Red Sea marked the Hebrews’ passage to the promised land.

Lions

I want to conclude by talking about the early Christian martyrs, who found themselves in circumstances that were, in some ways, the perfect “marriage” of the human cruelty that comes from the Fall and the hostility of nature that is its external consequence: They were fed to lions by the Roman Empire.

I seem to recall reading somewhere that some of the martyrs spoke of the lion’s mouth as a sort of gateway to God.  They saw their deaths in the lions’ dens as acts of sacrifice, loving self-offerings to their Heavenly Father.

So even the cruelties of nature are not hopeless.

We should, of course, use all reasonable means to fight against threats to our lives and livelihoods in this world.  But we should do so with a view to the greater hope that is offered to us by the God Who transcends all things, holding the world in the palm of His hand.

Granted, Carnahan may not have had these things in mind when he made “The Grey.”  Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.  But I do think the film makes the question of meaning in the face of death open-ended, and it’s portrayal of nature’s “meanness” is a great tool to help us reflect on this question.

So that’s it for “The Grey.”  Stay tuned for my much briefer — not to mention more upbeat — thoughts on “Big Miracle.”

Images obtained through a Google image search

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To recap the main point of part one: Nature shows us the reality of death, and the wolves in Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” represent this aspect of nature.

Where does this come from?  And how does it fit into the Christian meta-narrative?

The answer, from a Christian perspective, is the Fall.

We all know the story.  Adam and Eve were told not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they did it anyway.  Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about this:

The harmony in which (our first parents) had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”. Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground” (CCC 400 — bold added)

C.S. Lewis drew on this Christian insight when he sent his beloved Pevensie children back to Narnia in “Prince Caspian,” the second book in his Chronicles of Narnia.

If you have read this book or its predecessor, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (or seen the films), you will remember that when the children had left Narnia, it was a place where: 1) animals spoke; and 2) they and human beings enjoyed each other’s friendship.

Now, the throne of Narnia is occupied by a usurper who does not rule according to the will of Aslan (the Christ-figure of Narnia), and many of the animals are wild, mute, brutish, and hostile.

“Cursed is the ground because of you!  In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life.  Thorns and thistles shall it bear for you…” (Genesis 3:17-18, The New American Bible)

Human beings have sinned.  The animals, the trees, and the rest of nature have not.  But when we turned away from God, we dragged the whole of creation down the road to destruction with us.

From that perspective, we can see the hostilities of nature as a sort of “judgment” or “accusation.”  Creation, while also tending to our needs and showering us with beauty, will not let us forget that we have turned away from our loving Creator.

This leads me to draw once again from the writings of Dr. Peter Kreeft, whose magnificent book “Love is Stronger Than Death” I would recommend to anyone.  A basic assertion he makes is that from the standpoint of human reason, we only have hope if death is our fault.

Here is the explanation:

It means that our ultimate hope is not in ourselves, our innocence … To blame ourselves (as the story of Adam does in Genesis) is to clear reality, being, truth, the cosmos … (and) God.  We may yet be reconciled to reality … If reality were out of touch, there would be no hope … all hope of meaning would be gone (Kreeft 16, italics and first parentheses his)

So as depressing as the guilt-death relationship may seem, it dispels the fear we have of a meaningless universe in which all men are simply stuck on an obstacle-laden collision course with death.

And though we find hostility and, in a certain sense, the “taunts” of death in nature, we can find hope and meaning even in these.  I would argue that we can find in them the “sparring partner” that Dr. Kreeft speaks of in his book and to which I referred in my November 26 post, “Why ‘Into the Dance’?”

As I was typing this part of my reflection on “The Grey,” I realized that it is too long for one post.  I tried to avoid this, but as I said, this is a complex subject.  Therefore, I will have mercy on my readers and turn this into a four-part post (as opposed to the three-part post I had originally intended), with “The Grey” comprising three posts.  But the final part of my review of “The Grey” is ready, and will be up tomorrow.

Both photos of “The Grey” from http://www.guardian.co.uk; picture of “Adam and Eve” by Albrecht Dürer from http://www.metmuseum.org; picture of “Prince Caspian” from http://www.e-reading.org.ua (all obtained through a Google image search)

Reference

Kreeft, Peter.  Love is Stronger Than Death.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992.

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