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February 2016

Perspective on Politics

"Well, and so everything's falling apart.... Everybody sees that it can't go on like this. It's all too strained and bound to snap," Pierre said (as people have been saying as long as governments have existed, once they look attentively at any government whatsoever).

--Tolstoy, War and Peace

I finished War and Peace a couple of days ago, by the way. It's truly a great novel in every sense of the word. If you haven't read it and figured that you probably never would, reconsider. It's not a difficult read except in sheer length.

The Holy Father's universal prayer intention for March is: “That families in need may receive the necessary support and that children may grow up in healthy and peaceful environments.”

His intention for evangelisation is: “That those Christians who, on account of their faith, are discriminated against or are being persecuted, may remain strong and faithful to the Gospel, thanks to the incessant prayer of the Church."

--Vatican Information Service, March 1, 2016

...humanity renounced the search for a great light, Truth itself, in order to be content with smaller lights which illumine the fleeting moment yet prove incapable of showing the way. Yet in the absence of light everything becomes confused; it is impossible to tell good from evil, or the road to our destination from other roads which take us in endless circles, going nowhere.

There is an urgent need, then, to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim. The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it must come from God.

--Pope Francis, Encyclical Lumen Fidei (3-4), June 29, 2013

God does not simply have the desire or capacity to love; God is love: charity is His essence, it is His nature. He is unique, but not solitary; ... He cannot be closed in on Himself because He is communion, He is charity; and charity by its nature is communicated and shared. In this way, God associates man to His life of love, and even if man turns away from Him, God does not remain distant but goes out to meet him. This going out to meet us, culminating in the Incarnation of His Son, is His mercy.

--Pope Francis, Address to participants in the international congress on the encyclical "Deus Caritas est" of Benedict xvi on the tenth anniversary of its publication, February 26, 2016

Wealth and power are situations that can be good and beneficial to the common good, if placed at the service of the poor and of all, with justice and charity. But when, as too often occurs, they are experienced as a privilege, with selfishness and high-handedness, they are transformed into instruments of corruption and death.

--Pope Francis, General Audience, February 24, 2016

(The context of these words is the story of Naboth, murdered by King Ahab and his wife Jezebel because they wanted his vineyard--corruption and death, indeed.)

Do you want to be acknowledged in this book?

(I'm keeping this post at the top of the blog for the next few days, so that anyone who might want to have a say-so won't miss it. In the meantime, please check below for new posts.)

I am finally publishing a selection of the Sunday Night Journal. I want to acknowledge everybody who has encouraged my writing and who took part in discussions, especially those around SNJ entries. A generic thanks seems insufficient, so I'd like to mention specific people who are long-time readers and encouragers. You pretty much know who you are, I think. But most of you just give your first name or even an alias. I know most of your full names, and will use that if you want, but will also just use your commenting alias if you prefer. Let me know sometime in the next few days, as we are pretty close to the final layout.

SundayLightebook - subtitle option 1

And, before you ask: yes, I am "self-publishing" it, albeit with the words "self-published crap" (spoken by a librarian I know, not in reference to my book) ringing in my ears. After a lot of considering, I decided to do it this way for two reasons: 1) it just doesn't seem like a book that would interest a publisher; 2) it sounded like fun. I like the do-it-yourself aspect of it. Not that I'm doing it all myself: my daughter Clare designed it, and I think she's doing a great job. 

It will be available in both print and electronic forms, initially only via Amazon but soon thereafter (I hope) from Ingram, a giant book wholesaler, which will make it possible for bookstores to stock it (probably not very likely, but who knows?).

All this makes us understand that, in order to be saints, there is no need to be bishops, priests or religious: no, we are all called to be saints! So, many times we are tempted to think that sainthood is reserved only to those who have the opportunity to break away from daily affairs in order to dedicate themselves exclusively to prayer. But it is not so! Some think that sanctity is to close your eyes and to look like a holy icon. No! This is not sanctity! Sanctity is something greater, deeper, which God gives us. Indeed, it is precisely in living with love and offering one's own Christian witness in everyday affairs that we are called to become saints. And each in the conditions and the state of life in which he or she finds him- or herself. But you are consecrated. Are you consecrated? — Be a saint by living out your donation and your ministry with joy. Are you married? — Be a saint by loving and taking care of your husband or your wife, as Christ did for the Church. Are you an unmarried baptized person? — Be a saint by carrying out your work with honesty and competence and by offering time in the service of your brothers and sisters. “But, father, I work in a factory; I work as an accountant, only with numbers; you can’t be a saint there...”. “Yes, yes you can! There, where you work, you can become a saint. God gives you the grace to become holy. God communicates himself to you”. Always, in every place, one can become a saint, that is, one can open oneself up to this grace, which works inside us and leads us to holiness. Are you a parent or a grandparent? — Be a saint by passionately teaching your children or grandchildren to know and to follow Jesus. And it takes so much patience to do this: to be a good parent, a good grandfather, a good mother, a good grandmother; it takes so much patience and with this patience comes holiness: by exercising patience. Are you a catechist, an educator or a volunteer? Be a saint by becoming a visible sign of God’s love and of his presence alongside us. This is it: every state of life leads to holiness, always! In your home, on the street, at work, at church, in that moment and in your state of life, the path to sainthood has been opened. Don’t be discouraged to pursue this path. It is God alone who gives us the grace. The Lord asks only this: that we be in communion with Him and at the service of our brothers and sisters.

--Pope Francis, General Audience, November 19, 2014

(I picked this particular audience at random from the Vatican's site.)

To be Christian and to be a missionary is the same thing. To proclaim the Gospel, with words, and, even before that, with one’s life, is the principle end of the Christian community and of each of its members. 

--Pope Francis, Angelus address, January 25, 2016


52 Movies: Week 8 - Wings of Desire

In summer of 1988 I walked through the doors of the Detroit Film Theater, housed in the Detroit Institute of Arts, to see Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire (known in its original German title as Der Himmel über Berlin). I hadn’t read any reviews of the film, knew nothing about Wenders’ work, and, so, I was absolutely unprepared for what I would experience. Now, almost thirty years after that first encounter, I wonder if I am prepared for the film even now, let alone to write about it.

Wings of Desire is something of a minor miracle. Filmed essentially by mixture of intuition and improvisation without an actual script and ensouled by scraps of poetic dialogue and monologue sent via wire by Swiss poet/playwright Peter Handke (inspired in no small part by Rilke’s Duino Elegies), the film—seguing beautifully between German, French, and English—tells the story of incarnation as an angel, Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz) comes to realize he must renounce his eternal existence in order to, in his words, “take the plunge” and participate in human life. One might interpret this as a kind of postmodern Christology. Even before he takes the plunge, Damiel falls in love with Marion (played by the luminous Solveig Dommartin), a French acrobat in a tiny circus; her presence, especially her interior life so marked by loneliness, serves to convince him of what he had already been considering. Once his incarnation is accomplished, Damiel, deprived of his angelic omniscience, must find his beloved in the messy milieu of human life in pre-1989 Berlin: a city divided, darkened, yet still spiritually alive. When Damiel does find her, in the bar of a concert hall where Nick Cave is performing, Wenders offers us an affirmation of both the spirit and of the flesh: the divinity inherent to the eros that unites man and woman.

Indeed, the film is itself an extended contemplation of the synergy between fleshly and divine orders of eros, and Henri Alekan’s sublime cinematography, transitioning from black and white monochrome when told from the angelic point-of-view and color from the human, beautifully articulates Wender’s simple yet profound vision. Alekan, who was seventy-seven at the time of filming, had worked on Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece La Belle et la Béte (1946), used the same technique for acquiring the warmth of tone in the monochrome parts of Wings of Desire as he had in the Cocteau film: a filter made from his grandmother’s silk stocking, a notion gloriously low-tech, but bursting with poetry and eros.

Likewise, the score by Jürgen Knieper straddles the line between the form and improvisation with music evocative of the transcendent/immanent longing that is the centerpiece of the film; and the library scene, which includes a hodgepodge of voices in a surreal landscape of languages (Turkish, Hebrew, Arabic, in addition to the German, French, and English) some taken from the newspaper, some from scripture (the opening lines of Genesis in Hebrew), some from conversation—all improvised according to some very loose direction from Knieper.

In reality, the film includes far too many extraordinary scenes ripe for commentary—but to focus on just one seems to be to an exercise in “killing to dissect,” for the film is an organic whole. It may be that each scene, like a holograph, reveals the whole, but I trust less in my analytic skills than in my impressionistic ones when it comes to this film. So many of the scenes, indeed, inhabit my soul life: the library, the angels comparing notes in a car, the dying man on the street, the suicide, the many scenes with children (who, unlike the adults, often see the angels), the nightclubs, and the exquisite climax in the bar with Marion and Damiel—not to mention the charming subplots of Peter Falk (playing “himself”) who is (according to the story) in Berlin to work on a film set during the Nazi era, and the story of Homer, the people’s storyteller (played with great warmth by the eighty-seven-year-old Curt Bois). Nevertheless, my biography intersects in the film in such a way that I must comment on one scene (though maybe it counts as two) in particular.

During the break in filming the Nazi movie (note the metanarrative), Peter Falk stops at a snack truck for a coffee. He senses a presence (Damiel) and offers his hand in friendship to his invisible interlocutor. Falk, having a cigarette while leaning on the truck’s counter, has ordered a coffee, and when it arrives he takes a sip and tells Damiel how good such a simple pleasure is—“To smoke, and have coffee—and if you do it together, it’s fantastic.” Later, as one of his first incarnational acts, Damiel heads straight for the truck and a hot cup o’ joe.


In summer of 1988, I was in my mid-twenties. I had recently quit the music business and had more-or-less renounced the world. I wore grey, black, and white all the time, was a vegetarian, spent a lot of time looking for spiritual direction amongst Buddhists, Theosophists, and Anthroposophists, and, worse than that, I never drank coffee. When I got home after seeing the film, I ripped through all of the kitchen cupboards until I found a stash of coffee saved for guests. I immediately brewed up a pot of the strong French roast. I gave up the life of a black and white angel. I incarnated. But, as the film’s closing scroll says, “To be continued…”

Years later a colleague, a philosopher from the Anglo-American tradition, came to watch me teach Wings of Desire during my Religion and Film course. I told him of my own experience with the film, to which he answered: “If you see that film and it doesn’t change your life, you’re probably not alive.” Recently, I showed it at the end of a Creative Writing course. Afterwards, I saw one the students walking across campus, as if in a daze. I stopped her to see if she was okay. “It’s that film,” she said. “I…I have a lot to think about.” Indeed.

Welcome home, angels.

—In addition to teaching philosophy and English at Marygrove College in Detroit, Michael Martin is a biodynamic farmer living with his wife and most of his nine children in Waterloo Township, Michigan.