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Posts Tagged ‘Mercy’

No summary remarks can serve as substitution for reading part one, but I think a few introductory reflections will be helpful for the purpose of continuity.

As Providence would have it, the weekend I saw “Three Billboards” was the same weekend (more…)

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For part one, click here

“Memories…”

NOTE: Video included ONLY for aesthetic purposes (couldn’t find a “Hank the octopus” movie still I could use)

The developing relationship between Dory and Hank (Ed O’Neill) is especially interesting.

Hank, for undisclosed reasons, wants more than anything to avoid going back to the open ocean.  So he promises to help Dory locate her parents on the condition that she give him her quarantine tag, which will put him on a truck bound for a Cleveland aquarium.  There he can live out the rest of his days in a glass tank.

What intrigues me is the importance of memory in this relationship. (more…)

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If you liked last year’s video of a nun rocking Alicia Keys’ “No One,” you might like Fr. Pontifex.  This is “No Mercy,” one of his originals.

Yes, he is a real priest (I believe he is part of the Archdiocese of Chicago, but I’m not sure).

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Noah Poster

Links: Part One, Part Two, Part Three

I went to see “Noah” on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.  Fortunately, the movie ended soon enough that I could enjoy a nice, leisurely walk outside afterwards.  After seeing this movie, I looked on the beauty of the trees, the birds, and the sunlight, reflecting on God’s sustenance of all things, with greater joy and gratitude.  In this final installment of my commentary, I want to talk about why.

Noah6Let’s have a look at some pretty bad timing: After deciding that the human race must end with him and his family, Noah (Russell Crowe) learns that his son, Shem (Douglas Booth), and his beloved, Ila (Emma Watson), are having a child.  As patriarch and leader aboard the ark, Noah makes a firm decision: If the child is a boy, then he will replace Noah’s youngest child as the last man on earth.  If it is a girl — if it is a fruitful female human being, capable of bearing new life — he will have to kill her.

In spite of the entreaties of his family, Noah will not be moved.  He believes firmly, based on a process of discernment, that this is the will of the Creator.

“This gives me no pleasure,” he says to his wife. “But it is just.”

From that point on, there is an atmosphere of darkness, tension, and impending doom upon the ark — and I sincerely hope everyone who sees this movie feels it.  I certainly did.

Think about this from an existential perspective.  It is one thing to be facing catastrophe and death.  It is one thing to be uncertain whether we will survive or not.  It’s even one thing to intuit that we will not survive whatever ordeal we are facing.

But it is quite another when we come to understand that we should not be spared.

It is not simply, as a materialistic atheist might argue, that there is no real reason for man to be saved.  It’s worse than that.  Rather, it is right that we should die.

Our hearts yearn for life, and our instincts are geared toward survival.  So what do we do when we come to the sobering realization that there is absolutely nothing in justice to plead our cause?

Our hope rests in the…well, in the hope that the Creator will exercise mercy, that He will give us another chance.

Noah and Family

And this is exactly what happens at the end of “Noah.”  When he tries to carry out the execution of the baby girls, Noah finds that he cannot do it.  When he looks at their faces, he feels nothing in his heart but love.

That’s where it starts.  Then the waters of the Great Flood recede, and the family is given a new start on dry land.  And at the very end, in an impressive cinematic display, a rainbow — the sign of God’s Covenant with the world through Noah — fills the sky.

God has chosen mercy.  They know not why, but they know it, and can be glad.

Of course, the Gospel tells us why…

Christ Crucified by VelazquezThe Creator Himself, in the Person of the Word, foreseeing human sinfulness, determined from before the creation of the world to take on our human nature and, in His innocence, to take our guilt, shame, and curse upon Himself.  This He did on Calvary about 2,000 years ago.  The consequences we have earned for ourselves, He suffers in our place.  Having risen from the dead and ascended to the Father in heaven, He, the “spotless victim,” now advocates for us, always pleading that God be glorified in mercy.

As a cradle Catholic, I knew this; but it never really touched me to the core until I saw this movie (which is, no doubt, informed by the larger Old Testament narrative of which it is a part — a story of God’s unwavering faithfulness to His children even in the face of their unfaithfulness).

Now, at last, I truly understand how the greatest witnesses of the Faith could endure so much suffering and martyrdom throughout the years and still remain joyful.  We have been forgiven.  No one who turns to God in sincerity will be turned away.

I’ll say it again: We have been forgiven!  Let us strive to understand what that means.

Images from Wikipedia

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But in order that the desired fruit may be derived from this apostolate and this zeal for teaching, and that Christ may be formed in all, be it remembered, Venerable Brethren, that no means is more efficacious than charity. (…) (I)t is vain to hope to attract souls to God by a bitter zeal. On the contrary, harm is done more often than good by taunting men harshly with their faults, and reproving their vices with asperity. True the Apostle exhorted Timothy: “Accuse, beseech, rebuke,” but he took care to add: “with all patience” (II. Tim.iv., 2). Jesus has certainly left us examples of this. “Come to me,” we find Him saying, “come to me all ye that labor and are burdened and I will refresh you” (Matth. xi., 28). (…) What gentleness was that shown by the Divine Master! What tenderness, what compassion towards all kinds of misery! (…) Who will prevent us from hoping that the flame of Christian charity may dispel the darkness from their minds and bring to them light and the peace of God? It may be that the fruit of our labors may be slow in coming, but charity wearies not with waiting, knowing that God prepares His rewards not for the results of toil but for the good will shown in it.

PiusXvatgarden-Pope Pius X, from the encyclical “E Supremi”

Image from Wikipedia; text from http://www.vatican.va

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To combat evil… is to fight with love for all men, including those who are less good. It is to put goodness in relief, so as to make it more attractive, rather than to propagate evil by describing it. When the occasion presents itself to call the attention of society, or of authority, to some evil, it must be done with love for the person to blame, and with delicacy. Do not exaggerate; do not go into detail about the evil any more than is necessary to remedy it.

St.Maximilian_Kolbe-St. Maximilian Kolbe, quoted in the book “Forget Not Love” by André Frossard

Image from Wikipedia

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I would, as a viewer, identify four things that make the most difference in the second half of “Les Misérables.”  And these are relatively little things, as opposed to the grand uprising that was the focus of the previous post.

les-mis-eponin-marius

1. Eponine (Samantha Barks) gives Marius — with whom she is in love — the note he was supposed to have received from Cosette — with whom he is in love — after hiding it.

http://www.yuyi.cc/zy/41549-1-1.html

2. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), fearing to lose his adopted daughter Cosette but knowing her love for Marius, saves the latter’s life in almost total anonymity.

Marius_Cosette

3. The love between Marius and Cosette, which culminates in a happy wedding.

les-miserables-movie-jean-valjean

4. The mercy of Valjean, who at one point has Javert (Russell Crowe) in his grasp but spares his life, even knowing full well that he will continue to hunt him.

It is in these very simple and seemingly mundane actions of rectifying one’s own mistake, risking life and limb for another with no one watching, the love between a man and a woman, and “turning the other cheek” that produce the greatest emotional effect and conduce most to the story’s happy ending.

I think we see our two great themes coming together at this point.  We talked about the futility of a merely this-worldly uprising against institutional oppression in the previous post, and of how the latter is embodied in the character of Javert.

Javert 2Ironically, his side of the coin — namely, the legalistic police state — is another form of the same error.  After all, it is based on the assumption that by force, one can bring about perfect conformity to morality here on earth.  So the problem it poses is an earthly-utopia/transcendent-hope issue is well as a Law/Grace issue.

By showing Grace toward Javert in a self-effacing way, Valjean actually does wind up successfully bucking the “system.”

Javert_SuicideJavert, unfortunately, commits suicide as a result of this.  Having been faced with an understanding of reality for which he has no frame of reference, he simply cannot handle it; and instead of repentance, he chooses despair.

But whatever the result, Valjean has, by way of an action that to all appearances should be judged of little importance, thrown a wrench into the clockwork.

Self-effacing actions, not self-asserting actions, are what effect real and needed change.  Eponine and Valjean succeed in surrendering their own desires/interests, and their respective acts of detachment converge in a wedding…

Next time.

Images obtained through a Google image search

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Les-miserables-movie-poster1Note: You do not need to have seen “Les Misérables” in order to appreciate this post.  It is simply a reflection on one of the film’s themes and contains no spoilers.

So we close the curtain on Jean Valjean and Fantine.  Now that we have a bit of a break, we can get down to a bare bones question: Which is harder, Law or Grace?

(As long as we remember that Grace and the Law are not opposed, as well as the difference between the Law’s proper place and its abuse, I think the following points are valid)

Grace is less scrupulous than the Law.  The ancient Jews had a daunting number of commandments in the Torah, and each had to be observed with exactness.  And lest you think to yourself, “Hey, you’re gonna miss something here and there — it’s understandable,” understand that the whole Law is, in fact, one “piece.”

That’s not to say that all failures to observe the Law necessarily carry equal weight — but when the Law becomes the end-all-and-be-all of our spiritual lives, it can get overwhelming.

Grace takes account of human weakness and can even work with human failures.

But in another sense, Grace is much harder.  While perhaps emphasis on Law can be content with mere outward observance, Grace demands an overhaul of the heart.  In response to Grace, we are now responsible not only for performing the right action, but also for developing the right motives.

Colm Wilkinson 2That is why the Bishop’s forgiveness of and charity towards Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables” is such a great illustration of “turning the other cheek,” which Christ prescribes in Luke’s Gospel.

“Turning the other cheek” does not mean being a doormat, nor does it mean excusing, minimizing, or ignoring the wrongs committed by another.  Rather, it is a method of nonviolent confrontation — it causes no harm, but it lets the other see the wrongness of his/her ways.

After the episode with the Bishop, Vajean cannot comfortably return to his former course of action (which we may suppose to be a life of vengeance against the society that has disenfranchised him).  He has been confronted with something bigger than himself, something that compels him to go out of himself.

That something is Grace, pure and simple.

Top photo from Wikipedia; photo of the Bishop obtained through a Google image search

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TheatreIf it helps you, picture a bunch of stage hands switching things around in the dark.

From the counterproductivity of legalism we turn to an important question: How can we come to the defense of the sinner while at the same time condemning the sin?  The same question can be rephrased in reverse order: How can we express disapproval of the sin while behaving compassionately toward the sinner?

I think the answer lies in an understanding of what sin is and does.  Sin is like a prison.  It lures us with trappings of pleasure or satisfaction, and then when it gets a hold of us it binds us as with chains.

Jesus says as much:

Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. (John 8:34)

Sin makes us less human.  It may feel good for a time — just as using drugs and alcohol is pleasurable to the addict or alcoholic — but ultimately it harms the very heart of the person who commits it.

anne-hathaway-les-miserablesWhile we do see something of this in Jean Valjean’s case, we see it more explicitly in the character of Fantine (Anne Hathaway).  She has been forced into prostitution in order to feed her child, and when she sings her song of lamentation, “I Dreamed a Dream,” it is perhaps the most moving and tragic scene in the film.

And how do people from the upper tiers of the social hierarchy and servants of the law treat her?  With pure contempt.

Javert 2In fact, at one point Javert almost has her arrested for striking a “gentleman” (an act of self-defense).  The idea that her action might have been justified, that perhaps the man she struck had been posing a threat to her, never occurs to him.  He knows nothing about her — only that she is a prostitute, and therefore not to be trusted.  In all likelihood, she was born bad.

To the extent that the law puts people down and obscures their dignity, it becomes a servant of sin rather than a safeguard against it (remember, the degradation of the human person is sin’s purpose and effect).  When we look down on people self-righteously, when we jump too quickly to judgment, what we end up doing is maintaining them in their sins (“They’ll never change”).

Don’t get me wrong — law is necessary and good.  Society’s judgments on legitimate wrongs are likewise good.  But in the words of Pope John Paul II,

Forgiveness … seeks to reintegrate individuals and groups into society, and countries into the community of nations.  No punishment should suppress the inalienable dignity of those who have committed evil.  The door to repentance and rehabilitation must always remain open.*

No such “door” is open to Fantine, and so she loses faith in a benevolent God.

Jackman_HathawayAt this point, Valjean intervenes.  Having reformed his life and worked his way up to the position of mayor of the town in which Fantine lives, he discovers her in the gutter and lifts her out.

Caught_in_Adultery

One cannot help but be reminded of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.  As this woman is faced with the prospect of being stoned to death, Jesus says this to her captors:

Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. (John 8:7)

Not to be redundant, but I do need to return to Blessed John Paul II, who comments on this passage in his Apostolic Letter “Mulieris Dignitatem”:

In the end Jesus says to her: “Do not sin again“, but first he evokes an awareness of sin in the men who accuse her (…) Jesus seems to say to the accusers: Is not this woman, for all her sin, above all a confirmation of your own transgressions, of your “male” injustice, your misdeeds? (italics his)

This seems to apply in Fantine’s case as well.  After all, for all Javert’s zeal for the enforcement of the law, does he ever give any hint of concern for the social conditions that contribute to the sins of folks living in the dregs of society? (It is worth noting that there is a reprise of “Look Down” in the mouths of peasants at one point in the film)

Unfortunately, Fantine dies shortly after Valjean’s intervention.  A life of abject poverty and prostitution has taken its toll on her.  But she dies knowing that she is loved, and therefore her hope in the triumph of truth, goodness, and beauty — and, we may suppose, God — is restored.

Cosette

She is also happy because she knows her daughter, Cosette, will be well cared for.  Valjean promises to see to that — in fact, he takes Cosette in and raises her himself.

Colm Wilkinson 2

Here, we see Valjean extending the “economy” of grace.  Having been shown mercy by the kindly old Bishop, he is inspired to live a life of grace, extending that mercy to others.

That’s the thing about the life of grace, which comes to us through Jesus Christ: It is a gift that is increased by being shared, the treasure that grows to the extent that it is given away.

What motivates this sort of “pay-it-forward” attitude for the Christian?  Gratitude, certainly.  But also, it gets us less focused on ourselves.  It neither permits us to indulge in sin nor maintains us in our guilt, but frees us to actualize our true selves.  And as I’ve said before, all human beings are made in the image of the Triune God, and so we only truly find ourselves when we make of our very selves a sincere gift to others.

Both sin and the pharisaical abuse of the law (itself a sin) get in the way of this.

*From the book “Go in Peace”

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Les-miserables-movie-poster1

Notice: Some spoilers here

“Les Misérables” opens with the song “Look Down,” which is significant. The forces in this world opposed to the Will of God would always prefer to keep human beings looking down rather than up — that is, rather than looking toward hope. There are many ways of doing this, but in some way or other they all involve the wounding of the dignity that belongs to human beings.

Jean_ValjeanAs the film opens, we meet Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who has been serving 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed his sister’s starving child.

Valjean is finally paroled after nearly two decades, but he is a marked man. He must carry his convict’s papers with him wherever he goes so that everyone knows he is a “dangerous man.”

His first foray back into freedom takes him from town to town, and he is met wherever he goes with nothing but contempt — even to the point of being physically assaulted.

JavertOn top of that, he is being relentlessly pursued by Javert (Russell Crowe), the Constable who is determined to put Valjean back behind bars…even years later, when he has reformed his life.

Before we go further, we must realize that the crime for which Valjean was imprisoned is not only understandable, but fully justifiable.  In fact, his action was in total accord with Catholic social teaching, which states that whenever there is a question of obtaining basic necessities such as food and drink, and there is no other means of doing so, one has a right to take from the abundance of another.  Why?  Because, in fact, the person in question has a right to this necessity in justice.

After his release, Valjean’s situation reverses. He has been embittered and hardened by the institutional and societal injustice he has suffered, and this leads him to do something that is actually wrong.

Colm WilkinsonHe is taken in one night by a kindly old Bishop (Colm Wilkinson), and then at night he steals valuable items from him and escapes.  The next day, he is caught and dragged back to the Bishop by police officers.

Then what happens?  The Bishop denounces him, right?

On the contrary, he tells the police officers that these stolen items were, in fact, gifts from him to Valjean.  Not only that, he then declares that the only mistake Valjean made was forgetting to take two beautiful candles, which he immediately bequeaths to him.

Colm Wilkinson 2Valjean is not only “off the hook,” but now has a variety of valuable goods at his disposal.  The Bishop sends him on his way, but informs him that he must use these gifts for his own genuine good, for the bettering of himself as a man.

hugh-jackman-les-miserables1Now, contrast Valjean’s response to the Javert style of justice (already noted above) with his response to the Bishop’s utterly gratuitous act of generosity.  Valjean is a changed man.  The rest of the film follows him as he “pays it forward” with remarkable acts of charity toward others.

My point in recounting these plot points is to illustrate an important principle: The law, while good and necessary in itself, must never defeat its own purpose.  To the extent that it puts people down, it loses its way and becomes mere legalism.

When legalism is privileged over more humane approaches, as we can see, it proves to be counterproductive.  I’ll talk more about that in relation to the characters of “Les Misérables” within the next several days.

Top photo from Wikipedia; others obtained through a Google image search

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