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Monday, January 25, 2010

A Thunderously Catholic Movie—Gran Torino

©2010, Randall A. Beeler
18 And he said to them: I saw Satan like lightning falling from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you power to tread upon serpents and scorpions and upon all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall hurt you. (Lk 10, DRE)
Imagine a contemporary movie that portrays the power of forgiveness. Imagine a product of Hollywood that portrays the Church and the Priesthood in a positive light. Imagine a story that proclaims self-giving love instead of narcissistic self-indulgence.

Imagine Gran Torino.

Yes, it's rated "R." Yes, its protagonist, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), is a foul-mouthed, misanthropic old man who wields guns because of a chip-grown-boulder on his shoulder from his time in the Korean War.

It's real.

Set in a decaying, overrun-with-Hmong-immigrants Detroit borough, Gran Torino's grit and realism (including Walt's alienated family, gang activity, and racial strife) do not diminish the Catholic imagination of this story but demonstrate that such a setting is where we find the Church at its best, a keystone that the world rejects as thoughtlessly as it rejects Walt Kowalski and his Hmong refugee neighbors.

The movie opens in the Church, where Walt glares over the casket of his deceased wife as his estranged sons and their families' distance from him and all that he values cause him to curse and snarl. He rebuffs the young priest, Father Janovich, who, at the dying request of Walt's wife, promises to lead Walt to Confession, something the old veteran has not done since his time in the Korean War. Little wonder then, that Walt hurls racial epithets at his Hmong neighbors, despite the winning ways of their 17-year-old son, Thao, and his older sister, Sue.

When Thao, bullied by a Hmong gang, attempts to steal Walt's vintage Gran Torino, Walt is drawn into a relationship with the family as Thao recompenses for his crime by doing chores for Walt, who also saves Sue from a rape attempt. The persistence of the Hmong family is mirrored by that of Father Janovich—both are God's unlikely means of chipping away at Walt's stony heart.

Eventually, the harassment of the Hmong gang leads Walt to respond in the only way he knows: violent reprisal. Yet, Detroit is not Korea; Walt's vigilantism leads to Sue's rape at the hands of the gang and a drive-by hail of bullets on Thao's home.

Thao seeks blood revenge, and it seems that Walt agrees, polishing his rifle. He advises Thao to cool his rage and wait until nightfall so that they can take measures that will "end this thing once and for all."

While Thao waits, Walt gets a straight shave from the barber (something he's never indulged in), is fitted for a suit (again, another first), and arrives at the Church to receive the Sacrament of Penance.

You will have to see the confessional scene for yourself, but it is unlike anything you might expect. Although we do not hear the actual formula of absolution, Father Janovich absolves Walt and urges him not to resort to violence.

[The next paragraph is a spoiler; do NOT read it if you do not want to know the ending.]

Walt tricks Thao and locks him in the basement, while Walt leaves to confront the gang. Standing in front of the ganghouse, in sight of the neighbors, who watch from their windows, Walt calls the gang members to task for their crimes then reaches into the breast pocket of his jacket and mutters "Hail Mary, full of grace …" The rest of the prayer never leaves his lips as the gang guns him down, his prone body stretched on the ground in a cruciform pose, the lighter labeled with his Korean-War 1st-Cavalry-Division insignia in his open palm. He has no gun on his person. The gang is arrested for murder. Walt exorcises the evil from his neighborhood by the Christ-like offering of his very self.

[Spoiler threat over; you may safely read again.]

In Gran Torino, forgiveness—of oneself and others—is not a trite lesson but a palpable living, breathing Walt Kowalski who has been empowered by the Church and the Sacrament of Penance not merely to right his own accounts but to, through love, triumph over evil.

Throughout his life, Walt Kowalski has consigned himself to being a messenger of violence in a world that knows nothing else. Through the sacramental love shown to him by Thao and Sue, and the Sacrament of Penance persistently offered by Father Janovich, Walt is commissioned to bear Christ even to his enemies, the bearers of evil. For, to kill them, would be to kill another Thao, another Korean soldier. Instead, Walt defeats the scorpions and serpents by removing their sting, which Eastwood (also the director) punctuates with the "Hail Mary" as Walt's final words. Through Mary, the serpent's head is crushed (Gen 3:15b). Through the Grace embodied by the Blessed Virgin, the Church's Sacrament of Penance empowers Walt to die to himself and therein die for his people—white, black, Latino, and Hmong.

See Gran Torino and decide for yourself. Hollywood will not tell you that it's thunderously Catholic; but God-given storytelling power, in the hands of a veteran actor and director who has learned a thing or two about life, can tell the story God's love and forgiveness.
Father of holiness,
for the journey of your pilgrim Church on earth,
you have provided the Virgin Mary as a sign and beacon.
Through her intercession,
sustain our faith and enliven our hope,
that no obstacle may divert us
from the road which brings us salvation.
(concluding prayer from Compline
in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Is God Just—Even When We Are Massacred?

©2010, Randall A. Beeler

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners' ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build -- but not I build; no, but strain,
Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain. (Hopkins)

Gerard Manley Hopkins' famous poem seems a fitting way to celebrate another good Friday of Sorrowful Mysteries of Christ's Passion. But the world must find such a celebration witless.

Here we are, in the midst of the Epiphany, celebrating the pilgrimage of the nations to the Christ Child—and what do we do? We proclaim the death of Our Lord. No wonder some scoff at the Faith. We pass to others a peace that flows from the Passion, a violent, hideous, shameful death. We proclaim Jesus' resurrection from the dead; yet, we go on dying. While we gather in faithful worship, we are gunned down by our enemies before the very altar of sacrifice and firebombed as we worship.
You indeed, O Lord, are just, if I plead with you, but yet I will speak what is just to you: Why does the way of the wicked prosper: why is it well with all them that transgress, and do wickedly? (Jer 12, DRE)
Hopkins begins his sonnet with Jeremiah's lament, as if to show that the world must indeed wonder at Christianity. Not only are we decimated at the hands of our enemies but our very Scripture critiques the God in Whom we place our faith.

What God is this? Why, for His faithful "must/Disappointment all [we] endeavor end"?

As the "sots and thralls of lust" thrive in their leisure more than "I that spend,/Sir, life upon thy cause," the sonnet's tone shifts:

…See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them …

In the throes of our failure, green life bursts forth.

As He carries the Cross, Christ reminds the weeping women of Jerusalem, "For if in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry?" (Lk 23:31, DRE). Our suffering the green and the dry embodies the sin-broken world we live in. God Himself does not deny this reality, but embraces it in the "fretty chervil" of the Crown of Thorns.

Christ's suffering does not imply that God inflicts evil on us. The Church's frank admission that the evil do  prosper and that the faithful can often be "time's eunuch" is not a sado-masochistic encouragement to "just suffer it." God cherishes our freedom, to the point of suffering our sin of executing him. The Crucifixes we wear proclaim that the Corpus on the Cross rises to eternal life—as do we. Thereby, we defeat evil … in the very grip of it.

In becoming man, God does not plot our suffering but pleads with us in our suffering, in sighs and groans as deep as our laments:
6 The Lord is the keeper of little ones …
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. (Ps 116, DRE)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Epiphany—Finding Christ Beyond the Tabloids

©2010, Randall A. Beeler
Behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was. 10 And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11 And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother; and falling down they adored him. And opening their treasures, they offered him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matt 2, DRE)
They followed a star—and not one on the cover of a tabloid—which is the wonder of the Wise Men wandering there.

Pagan astrologers, the most superstitious of the superstitious, find God … by following a star.

After 2,000 years, we render them reputable royalty. But to a devout Jewish family, to the residents of Jerusalem, and even to the nominally Jewish-convert like Herod, the Magi were worse than the Romans. These very un-Wise Men dabbled in nature worship and magic spells (hence the moniker, "Magi"). Hailing from Babel, they babble in soothsaying and dabble in rituals that make a present-day wiccan look as tame as Rachel Ray.

And they find the Savior.

Their gifts are our best clue. Gold—forged from the vanity and extravagance of solely human effort. Frankincense—choking coals burnt to appease angry gods. Myrrh—the bitter burial herb reminding us that we will return to the earth from which we dug the gold, our dreams up in smoke.

They do not find the Savior. He finds them—by unearthing for them clues in His very creation:
19 Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God has manifested it unto them. 20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. His eternal power also and divinity (Rom 1, DRE)
Unlike the Jews, the people of the Word, the Magi are gentiles, the people of the World. As God calls the Jews through the saving books of the Torah, so He calls the Gentiles through the saving truths of His Creation.

The Magi render to the Savior the very clues He gives them. Laying down the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they show that they understand, even if darkly, in a mirror. The Epiphany is two-way communication.

The Incarnation radiates the Truth that the prophets did not forecast a future event; no, the Incarnation reveals that God has always been with us. Similarly, the astrology of the Magi is not a horoscope but a digging for a Truth more precious than gold.

All we have to account for our merely human efforts are squandered diggings, smoking embers, and bitter extracts. Yet, our very digging, burning, and extracting consummates the relationship with God; what we cannot take with us beyond death we must gift to our Savior—fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
4 Abide in me: and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abide in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine: you the branches. He that abides in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit: for without me you can do nothing. (Jn 15, DRE)
What we cannot take beyond the grave not only shows that, without Christ we can do nothing, but also expresses Jesus' self-offering: His golden rule, His incense offering, His burial.

With Him is buried all our futile efforts to abide by the Law (as if the Law were ever meant to be a book of rules for earning salvation). With Him is buried all our restless digging through the world (as if we could make a god of the dust of the earth).

The Epiphany is firmly planted at the gate of the New Year because it reminds us that, though we can craft clay by the work of our hands, we must lay it all down before the Savior, that He might breathe into it—and us—the breath of Life Eternal.

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