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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.

The Sacred Scripture presents God as infinite mercy, but also as perfect justice.... How can the two be reconciled? They may appear to be contradictory, but this is not the case, as it is precisely God's mercy that leads us to achieve true justice. In the legal administration of justice, we see that those who consider themselves to have been victims of abuse consult a judge in court and ask that justice be done. It is a retributive justice, inflicting punishment on the guilty, according to the principle that each person receives what he deserves. … But this route does not lead to true justice, as in reality it does not conquer evil, it simply limits it. Instead, only by responding with good can evil truly be conquered.

[The Bible, he explained, proposes a different form of justice, in which the victim invites the guilty party to convert, helping him to understand the harm he has done and appealing to his conscience.] In this way, recognising his blame, he can open up to the forgiveness that the injured party offers. This is the way of resolving conflicts within families, in relations between spouses and between parents and children, in which the injured party loves the guilty and does not wish to lose the bond between them. It is certainly a difficult path: it demands that the victim be disposed to forgive and wishes for the salvation and the good of the perpetrator of the damage. But only in this way can justice triumph, as if the guilty party acknowledges the harm he has done and ceases to do so, the evil no longer exists and the unjust becomes just, as he has been forgiven and helped to find the way of good.

--Pope Francis, General Audience, February 3, 2016,

This was taken from a Vatican Information Service report which mixes summary and direct quotes; the sentence in brackets is the former.

He Who is Our Father, it is He to Whom we pray every day with insistence. And what do we tell Him in one of the petitions of that prayer? Lead us not into temptation. Jesus Himself did the same thing. He prayed that His disciples – yesterday’s and today’s – would not fall into temptation. What could be one of the sins which besets us? What could be one of the temptations which springs up not only in contemplating reality but also in living it? What temptation can come to us from places often dominated by violence, corruption, drug trafficking, disregard for human dignity, and indifference in the face of suffering and vulnerability? What temptation might we suffer over and over again...what temptation could might we endure in the face of all this, in the face of this reality which seems to have become a permanent system?"

I think that we could sum it up in a single word: 'resignation'. And faced with this reality, the devil can overcome us with one of his favourite weapons: resignation. 'And what are you going to do about it? Life is like that'. A resignation which paralyses us and prevents us not only from walking, but also from making the journey; a resignation which not only terrifies us, but which also entrenches us in our ... false securities; a resignation which not only prevents us from proclaiming, but also inhibits our giving praise and takes away the joy, the joy of giving praise. A resignation which not only hinders our looking to the future, but also stifles our desire to take risks and to change. And so, 'Our Father, lead us not into temptation'.

--Pope Francis, address to the clergy of Morelia, Mexico, February 17, 2016

(Note: The ellipses in the text only indicate the omission of a few phrases that make the message specific to clergy.)

"You encounter much fragility. Therefore I would like to offer you this fragile image", he said, referring to the crystal crucifix he gave to the Centre to commemorate his visit. "Crystal is fragile, it breaks easily. Christ on the Cross represents the greatest fragility of humanity; however it is this fragility that saves us, that helps us, that enables us to keep going and opens the doors of hope. It is my wish that each one of you, with the blessing of the Virgin and contemplating the fragility of Christ Who died to save us, sowing seeds of hope and resurrection".

--Pope Francis, visiting a prison in Juarez, Mexico, February 17, 2016

Question: "The media have referred to the intense correspondence John Paul II and the American philosopher, Ana Teresa Tymieniecka. … According to His Holiness, can a Pope have such an intimate relationship with a woman?"

Pope Francis: "I would say that a man who does not know how to have a relationship of friendship with a woman … well, he is a man who is missing something. … A friendship with a woman is not a sin. It is a friendship. … But the Pope is a man. The Pope needs the input of women, too. And the Pope, too, has a heart that can have a healthy, holy friendship with a woman. There are saint-friends – Francis and Clare, Teresa and John of the Cross. ... But women are still not well considered; we have not understood the good a woman can do for the life of a priest and of the church in the sense of counsel, help and healthy friendship".

--Conversation with reporters, February 18, 2016

The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created, according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures tend toward God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend towards other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that Trinitarian dynamic which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity.

--Pope Francis, Laudato Si 240

A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.... I say only that [Donald Trump] is not Christian if he has said things like that. And please let me know if there is anything else I can do to assist Trump toward the Republican nomination, because I'm pretty sure either Democrat will beat him like a rented mule.

--Pope Francis, remarks to reporters, Feb. 18 2016

(Note: the last sentence is not in the official transcript

Today we see how on different fronts the family is weakened and questioned. It is regarded as a model which has done its time, but which has no place in our societies; these, claiming to be modern, increasingly favour a model based on isolation. … It is true that family life is not always easy, and can often be painful and stressful but, as I have often said referring to the Church, I prefer a wounded family that makes daily efforts to put love into play, to a family and society that is sick from isolationism or a habitual fear of love. I prefer a family that makes repeated efforts to begin again, to a family and society that is narcissistic and obsessed with luxury and comfort.

--Pope Francis, February 15 address at Tuztla Gutierrez in Mexico

52 Movies: Week 7 - Terracotta Warrior


A number of comments on this blog (and at least one of the main posts) have mentioned Zhang Yimou in positive terms. He has directed small-scale, thoughtful, human films such as Not One Less and The Road Home as well as gorgeous costume/action blockbusters like Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower, besides having directed the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. He is without a doubt one of the great film-makers of recent decades. His only major role as an actor was in one of my favourite Hong Kong films, the insufficiently famous Terracotta Warrior (1989), directed by Ching Siu-Tung, in which he is an unlikely but highly effective action hero. A taste of it can be found here. Apparently it was released in the US as Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior, but I will stick with the shorter title.

Ching perhaps has greater renown as an action choreographer than as a director; it was in this capacity that he collaborated with Zhang on Hero and House of Flying Daggers, as well as working on other films with international recognition. The genre in which he excels is not the kung fu film that is what most people first think of as Hong Kong cinema, but the swords-and-sorcery martial epic, in which swordplay, costumes and pyrotechnics combine to stunning effect, a genre that only broke through in the West with Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

A full appreciation of Terracotta Warrior requires some familiarity with the original The Mummy, the 1932 extravaganza with Boris Karloff in the title role. This is a love story in which the good guys are archaeologists attached to the British Museum, and the baddy is the undead Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian priest buried alive for having dared fall in love with Princess Ankhesenamon, and revived by ancient magic when his tomb is opened. In the "present day" of 1930s Cairo he attempts to abduct the love interest, Helen Grosvenor, thinking her (correctly, as it ultimately transpires) the reincarnation of Ankhesenamon. While the original The Mummy came a decade after the excavation of Tutankhamen's Tomb, Terracotta Warrior came 15 years after the discovery of the Terracotta Army in the vicinity of the tomb of the First Emperor of China. It is not so much a remake of The Mummy as a post-colonial rebuttal. The "undead" figure, and the hero of the film, played by Zhang Yimou, is the First Emperor's personal bodyguard, entombed in terracotta as punishment for deflowering one of the Emperor's "500 maidens". The reincarnated maiden is played by Zhang's real-life muse, Gong Li, and in the 1930s section of the film is a spoilt aspiring starlet, filming on location. This film-within-the-film, it turns out, is a front for organized criminal activities (the extent of Triad money-laundering through the film industry was highly topical in Hong Kong when Ching was filming). The baddies are looters of antiquities who sell their stolen treasures to foreign collectors (including foreign museums), and are using the film as a cover for moving equipment in and finds out. Tomb raiders are still active in China, and not so long ago a high-profile case gave rise to a feature about them in the South China Morning Post.

Unlike The Mummy, a good third of Terracotta Warrior is set in ancient times, charting the slow unfolding of the relationship between the conflicted warrior (a man of honour loyally serving a tyrant) and the traumatized maiden (orphaned by the emperor's "burning of books and burying of scholars", and later abducted to his court). (Highlights here.) This gives their "undying love" rather more emotional depth than a fantasy action-adventure would normally find necessary to establish. The climax of this first part is the consummation of their slow-burning, largely silent romance in an alchemist's workshop during a thunderstorm (to a soundtrack of the immortal Sally Yeh's thematically appropriate "Burn Heart with Fire", which can be heard at the previous link). The eroticism of mainstream Chinese cinema is far more effective for not forcing one to look away in embarrassment (exhibit A in this regard being Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, which without any sex scenes at all puts Maggie Cheung on a par with any cinematic sex symbol you could care to mention).

After 40 minutes the curtain falls – almost literally, in a bold theatrical touch – on the doomed Qin Dynasty love affair, and a very different drama begins, centring on 1930s tomb raiders. The longer, second part of the film has strong overtones of Indiana Jones, but also undertones of Time Bandits. The transition is signalled by the sound of an aeroplane flying overhead. It can hardly be by accident that the film manages to pack in every form of ancient and modern transport possible – horses, handcarts, stilts, palanquins, chariots, ships, cars, trains and aeroplanes; even, at the very end, a minibus.

Zhang Yimou went on himself to direct successful costume dramas both about the First Emperor (Hero) and about 1930s gangsters (Shanghai Triad), each of which is a more accomplished work of art. Neither, though, can compare with Ching Siu-Tung's Terracotta Warrior for zest, inventiveness, silliness and delight. Part of the beauty of the film is that it does not take itself too seriously, and while full of excellence is unpretentiously and avowedly escapist entertainment. The director set out his philosophy of escapist fiction in the post-modern Dr Wai and the Scripture with No Words (1996), in the long cut of which Jet Li is a frustrated paperback writer who becomes a character in his own cheap martial arts story (I've never understood why the international release only gave the cheap martial arts story, without the framing fiction of rewrites and re-editing that makes its sudden shifts in narrative direction funny rather than baffling).

Terracotta Warrior is very hard to find with English subtitles; perhaps not in the US, but certainly in the UK. I have long had it on VHS with French subtitles and recently acquired a German DVD, and have wondered if its inaccessibility has something to do with rights disputes rather than simply a lack of appreciation. There is, however, relatively little dialogue, and once informed of the plot it is probably possible to enjoy the spectacle without having to understand all the words.

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.

Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone.... The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and "the first principle of the whole ethical and social order." (John Paul II, Laborem Exercens) The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. 

--Pope Francis, Laudato Si 93

Today's media do enable us to communicate and to share ourknowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.

--Pope Francis, Laudato Si 47

On the Passing of Justice Scalia

It is a great loss. Everybody has heard about Scalia's dissent in Obergefell vs. Hodges, in which the court discovered that marriage has nothing to do with sex. I had read a few quotes from the dissent, but not the whole thing until today. It's very much worth reading. Here is one powerful excerpt.

This is a naked judicial claim to legislative—indeed, super-legislative—power; a claim fundamentally at odds with our system of government. Except as limited by a constitutional prohibition agreed to by the People, the States are free to adopt whatever laws they like, even those that offend the esteemed Justices’ “reasoned judgment.” A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.

And as someone who cares about writing I applauded this:

The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic. It is one thing for separate concurring or dissenting opinions to contain extravagances, even silly extravagances, of thought and expression; it is something else for the official opinion of the Court to do so.[22] Of course the opinion’s showy profundities are often profoundly incoherent.

I have to note that I saw this happening twenty-plus years ago and described it in an essay called "Nothing at the Center," which appeared in Caelum et Terra.

It is in many circles somewhere between bad manners and villainy to admit to having fixed beliefs on most moral and philosophical questions. Yet it is clear that the human mind requires such points of fixity, and so we find the most skeptical intellectuals placing the most naive trust in the judgment of the Supreme Court. It is not just that they acknowledge the fact that the Court has the last word; there is almost a sense that they believe that the Court’s decisions constitute what is right and true, at least for the moment.

To place such trust in these nine popes without a God would obviously be a mistake at any time, but now it is ridiculous. We find ourselves in the position of expecting to have the most serious moral questions answered by a group of lawyers selected by politicians, and we are getting the sort of answers that might be expected.

There is some irony in the fact that Scalia, a Catholic, did not argue for the normal and reasonable understanding of marriage, but only for the constitutional question of who is entitled to decide. I argued in my essay that the absence of any recognition of an agreed-upon moral framework may be the fatal weakness of the American system. As far as his work as a judge was concerned, Scalia accepted that. He makes no attempt to appeal to any higher law. It is in fact the justices who declared same-sex marriage a fundamental right who ignored the Constitution in favor of what they clearly believe, though they didn't use the term, to be a higher law, an unwritten law which can be invoked at the will of any five Supreme Court judges to nullify whatever laws happen to be written down, including the Constitution itself. Unwittingly they testify to the impossibility of escaping the necessity of fundamental moral judgments.

Here is Kevin Williamson at National Review making an argument similar to mine, even using similar language, but rather more forcefully:

The alternative [to Scalia's approach] is to make the Supreme Court a nine-person mob in a mob-rule society. We already are dangerously close to that point. No thinking person doubts that Ginsburg, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Breyer will find a way to produce the outcome that the Left desires in any important case. Kagan lied to the Senate about her thinking on the question of gay marriage in order to have the opportunity to enact that thinking from the highest court. Never mind that the Constitution does not actually say what they wish it said about gay marriage, abortion, gun ownership, or the fact that First Amendment protections go well beyond the editorial board of the New York Times: If the Left demands a constitutional right to late-term abortion manufactured out of whole cloth, or that the words “the right of the people” be magically transformed into “the National Guard” in the case of the Second Amendment, these so-called justices will deliver.

Actually I'd quibble a bit with that. It isn't mob rule that progressives want, it's the establishment of their own system of absolutes.

Well, I keep saying that American democracy is in decay, and that self-rule by the governed is becoming a hollow concept. The replacement of Scalia by someone of President Obama's choosing will certainly further the decay, though there is some hope that Republicans will make good on their currently stated intention not to confirm an Obama appointee. The efficacy of that, if it happens, will of course hold for only a year if the Republicans lose the presidential election, and quite possibly if they win.

 And the opposition should not let the Democrats intimidate them into believing there is something wrong with refusing to confirm Obama's choice.


6. Mindful of the permanence of many obstacles, it is our hope that our meeting may contribute to the re–establishment of this unity willed by God, for which Christ prayed. May our meeting inspire Christians throughout the world to pray to the Lord with renewed fervour for the full unity of all His disciples. In a world which yearns not only for our words but also for tangible gestures, may this meeting be a sign of hope for all people of goodwill!

7. In our determination to undertake all that is necessary to overcome the historical divergences we have inherited, we wish to combine our efforts to give witness to the Gospel of Christ and to the shared heritage of the Church of the first millennium, responding together to the challenges of the contemporary world. Orthodox and Catholics must learn to give unanimously witness in those spheres in which this is possible and necessary. Human civilization has entered into a period of epochal change. Our Christian conscience and our pastoral responsibility compel us not to remain passive in the face of challenges requiring a shared response.

--From the Joint Declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill

Nonetheless, this mystery [of "the fullness of time"] constantly clashes with the dramatic experience of human history. Each day, as we seek to be sustained by the signs of God’s presence, we encounter new signs to the contrary, negative signs which tend to make us think instead that He is absent. The fullness of time seems to fade before the countless forms of injustice and violence which daily wound our human family. Sometimes we ask ourselves how it is possible that human injustice persists unabated, and that the arrogance of the powerful continues to demean the weak, relegating them to the most squalid outskirts of our world. We ask how long human evil will continue to sow violence and hatred in our world, reaping innocent victims. How can the fullness of time have come when we are witnessing hordes of men, women and children fleeing war, hunger and persecution, ready to risk their lives simply to encounter respect for their fundamental rights? A torrent of misery, swollen by sin, seems to contradict the fullness of time brought by Christ. Remember, dear pueri cantores, this was the third question you asked me yesterday: how do we explain this… even children are aware of this.

And yet this swollen torrent is powerless before the ocean of mercy which floods our world. All of us are called to immerse ourselves in this ocean, to let ourselves be reborn, to overcome the indifference which blocks solidarity, and to leave behind the false neutrality which prevents sharing.

--Pope Francis, homily, Jan. 1, Solemnity of the Mother of God and World Day of Peace

This is a real building in San Jose, California. I haven't made any effort to find out what actually goes on in there, as I think it would spoil the effect.


The Holy Father's universal prayer intention for February is: “That we may take good care of creation – a gift freely given – cultivating and protecting it for future generations”.

His intention for evangelisation is: “That opportunities may increase for dialogue and encounter between the Christian faith and the peoples of Asia”.

(via Vatican Information Service)

A Lenten Project

As I've said here more than once, I'm among those who have some reservations about Pope Francis. I'm not so sure about his governance of the Church, but I think he's an excellent pastor in many ways. As I've probably also said, it would probably be great to have him as a parish priest. Partly as an effort to focus on what I think is best about him, and partly just because it's Lent, I'm going to try to post a quote from him every day during Lent. Chances are good that I'll miss a few days, but I'll try to keep up. This is from the first page I saw when I opened up Laudato Si earlier today.

Moreover, when our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one. It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is "contrary to human dignity" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2418). We can hardly consider ourselves to be fully loving if we disregard any aspect of reality.

--Laudato Si, 92

52 Movies: Week 6 - The Apu Trilogy

If you ever took a class in cinema history, or even read a book on the subject, you’ve heard of these movies. I had, but had not seen them until recently. Twenty or more years ago they were available in the local library on video tape. I checked out the first one, Pather Panchali, but the quality was poor, the story slow and far from gripping, and I had many distractions, and never finished it.

Recently the entire trilogy was broadcast on Turner Classic Movies, which we get via the cable TV service which we use very little and have several times decided to cancel. (I haven’t been able to make myself follow through on that decision, partly because I know it will involve a long time on the phone and partly because we very much enjoy the few channels that we do watch--PBS, TCM, and ESPN during college football season.) So I decided to record the three films. I did this more out of a sense of duty than of anticipation of something wonderful: the trilogy was just an item on a mental list of Classics One Ought To Have Seen.

But what I got was in fact something wonderful, and if you’ve never seen these films, or saw them many years ago, perhaps in an inferior copy, I strongly recommend that you seek out the newly restored Criterion Collection edition. At $65 or more, it’s not something most of us would buy, but one would hope that libraries which maintain good film collections would be getting it. As of this writing, Netflix only has the first two films in the set. I don’t know whether that means it’s coming or going.

The original negatives were severely damaged and partly destroyed in a fire in 1993. The benefactors of mankind at Criterion Collection have taken what could be salvaged from those negatives, combined that with the best copies and prints they could find, and applied all sorts of painstaking manual and electronic techniques of restoration to every frame, producing a version which probably gives you on your TV something as good, apart from the the size of the screen, as most theater-goers saw in the 1950s. (One of the discs includes a documentary on the restoration, which is fascinating.)

This is all very important because in my opinion it’s the visual quality of the films that makes them. I almost hesitate to describe the plot. The three films together comprise six hours or so of what is basically a fairly ordinary story of the childhood, youth, and early manhood of the character whose name is usually given to the whole trilogy. Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) gives us his boyhood in a rural village. Aparajito (The Unvanquished) takes him through schooling and adolescence. By the end of Apur Sansur (The World of Apu) he is a young husband and father.

The story moves slowly; our protagonist does not even get born until well into the first film, which is really about Apu’s family more than Apu himself. And there is nothing spectacular in them. We don’t, for instance, see Apu witnessing or participating in any great events. There are no obvious socio-political messages involved—nothing attacking colonialism, for instance—although there are certainly implications of that sort, presumably not accidental. Similarly, there is no agonized wrestling with existential questions, except as they are naturally suggested by the events of an ordinary life. Apart from the fact that he becomes something of an intellectual, and a would-be novelist, Apu is not an unusual sort of person. He and his family live quiet lives. They experience joy and sorrow. They manage as best they can. Apu grows up, leaves home, marries. But to say that there is nothing spectacular doesn’t of course mean that there is nothing dramatic, because there certainly is, as there is in every human life. But it’s quiet and personal and in its sorrows all too normal. Well, perhaps somewhat greater than normal: the family is very, very poor, and financial difficulties and the strains they produce are a big part of Pather Panchali. So is the elemental enemy, death, throughout the trilogy.

I’m at something of a loss to explain why the three films are so captivating. I’ve asked myself how much of my interest is due to the exotic setting and culture. That’s certainly part of it, especially in Pather Panchali, which, at least on one viewing, is my favorite of the three. I’m not sure whether this is a strictly accurate way of putting it, but the best quick description of the setting of Pather is that Apu’s family lives in the jungle. Yet they live in and among large well-constructed stone buildings, and I’m very curious as to how this came about.

And speaking of the exotic, one can’t discuss the trilogy without mentioning its very effective and appealing music, which was composed and partly performed by a musician who at the time must have been very little known in the West, though he later became very well known indeed: Ravi Shankar. I’ve look for a soundtrack album, but haven’t found one. I did find the theme from Pather on a 1962 Ravi Shankar release, Improvisations and Theme from Pather Panchali. I thought the cover looked familiar, then realized that I own the album, though I haven’t listened to it for decades.

But back to the question of the films’ appeal: above all it’s visual, at least for me. Astonishingly, Pather Panchali was Ray’s first film, and also the first for his cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, who had literally never operated a movie camera before beginning work on Pather. Obviously they had some strong instinctive sense of how to compose a scene for the camera, and quickly learned techniques of lighting and such. I found myself, even when nothing much was happening, drinking in the rich imagery. And although the actors were reportedly inexperienced, they have strong and expressive faces to which the camera gives a great deal of attention. I don’t think I’m going to forget the face of Apu’s mother.

I don’t feel like my critical vocabulary is really up to the task of giving an adequate sense of what these movies are like, or what their effect on me was. Whoever wrote the blurb for the Criterion Collection did a better job:

These delicate masterworks...based on two books by Bibhutibhusan Banerjee, were shot over the course of five years, and each stands on its own as a tender, visually radiant journey. They are among the most achingly beautiful, richly humane movies ever made—essential works for any film lover.

And here is the trailer for the new edition. I suggest you double-click on it and watch it at full screen, because at least on my computer the video within the blog column is not centered in its own window and the right side is cut off, which means that when the advertising banner appears I can't close it, and that pretty much ruins the effect. Or click here to watch it on YouTube, where you can get rid of the banner. The haunting theme of Pather Panchali is heard beginning at 1:32. 


For once something that sounds like advertising hype is the simple truth: “Don’t miss this opportunity to see three of the greatest films of all time.”

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

The New X-Files

Having watched four of the six episodes now, my opinion is more or less the same as it was after the first one: it's pretty good, not great, and therefore a bit of a disappointment. It depends partly on what kind of X-Files fan you are. Did you like the continuing UFO story, or did you prefer the standalone "monster of the week" episodes? I liked the latter but I thought the former was where the show's real strength and promise were. But they blew it--for whatever reasons, including not knowing whether they would be renewed from one year to the next or which actors would bail out, the story fell apart.

So I was kind of hoping that in the new one they would have in mind a complete and coherent story that would have something similar to the vibe of the UFO story, maybe be related to it. But it appears that they're going in the other direction. At least they have so far. I won't go into any detail in case you plan to see it but haven't yet. Also, it has something of a going-through-the-motions feel to me. And I think they're spending too much time making wry ironic references to the original.

Still, I think any fan of the original would probably find it worth watching.

Very wisely, they are using the original opening credits (as far as I can tell), even though Mulder and Scully look a lot older now (because they are).