Calvary, the Movie

The movie Calvary is a stunning meditation on the Christian story. If you have not already seen it, you might want to save this until later. Every review is a spoiler to some degree. But this is less review than reflection on a film, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, that rises to the power of the 1951 Diary of a Country Priest. The earlier French film, adapted from Georges Bernanos’s novel by the towering Robert Bressson, has had no equal until now.


Like its predecessor, Calvary is the story of a good priest tending a hostile rural congregation. Narrative follows the diary structure, time condensed into the seven days Father James has left to live. His anguish is psychological. The attacking cancer is not within him; it festers in the maimed heart of a villager made desolate by the aftershock of sexual abuse in childhood.

The movie opens in the confessional. A man slips in to whisper the secret of his abuse: “I first tasted semen when I was seven.” Jolted, the priest responds: “That is certainly a startling opening line.” He gains his self-possession and proceeds with pastoral calm. A brief back-and-forth elicits intent from the murderer-in-waiting: “I am going to kill you because you are innocent.”

Conversations are terse, crackling with a bitter wit as hard and native to the Irish as the megaliths of Sligo. The economy and mettle of the dialogue have prompted reviews to call Calvary “a black comedy.” But it is nothing of the sort. It is mythic, not comedic. It is the primal story of innocence betrayed. Betrayal corrupts in countless ways. Here, innocence once defiled contorts in lust for vengeance. An offering must be made. The blood of a lamb must spill to atone for the wounds of a desecrated soul.

Something primeval drives this levied sacrifice. Its primordial character is underscored by a camera which keeps scanning Benbulbin (Binn Ghulbain), the mythic rock formation shaped hundreds of millions of years ago. Its high, imposing plateau rises over Sligo like a Neolithic altar, a slaying stone as old as time. As original as sin itself. This is Yeats country, the setting of Irish legends and home to “the dark folk who live in souls/ of passionate men, like bats in the dead trees.”




For all their contemporaneity, the cast of characters share resemblance with the old narrative device of personification: the Faithless Wife (aka Infidelity), the Man of Science (Atheism), the Cuckold, the Poor Rich Man, the Gay Bachelor. As types, they bind the contemporary narrative to ancient storytelling tropes. The bachelor’s rent boy is a slithering, elfin embodiment of malevolence, a deviant leprechaun. At the same time, he is totally believable as a victim-turned-predator.

Father James wears his cassock throughout. It serves as both a badge of office and a subtle gesture of defiance in the face of the scandal-induced disaffection that sundered the unity of the term Irish Catholic into two uneasy halves. Though the drama is steeped in the sour repercussions of scandal, the Church is treated with uncommon kindliness. Sympathy for this clear-eyed, stalwart priest stands bail for sympathy with the Church itself.

To short circuit any speculation, Father James’ heterosexuality is established at the outset by the arrival of his daughter. A widower and a recovering alcoholic, he entered the priesthood late. His daughter Fiona visits in the wake of a failed suicide triggered by too many failed relationships with men. She is an intelligent, winsome exemplar of the Magdalens secular culture creates and discards with casual cruelty.

The priest goes about his week ministering where he can, exploring options for escape, suffering the burning of his church and the slaughter of his cherished dog. Among the tormenters lining his Way of the Cross stands the man intent on killing him. Which one is he? Father James addresses the gauntlet of contenders with: “There is too much talk of sin and not enough about virtue.” Adapted to phrasing congenial to contemporary audiences, his words echo the merciful injunction that has followed us down the centuries: “Go, and sin no more.”

His Gethsemane is a barroom; Golgatha, a lonely stretch of beach along the wild Atlantic. Finally, the morning of his execution comes. Our priest kneels beneath a crucifix and prays silently. We do not need to hear his prayer. We know what it is. We have listened all our lives:

Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not my will but thine be done.

Walking to the beach to meet his killer, the priest flings into the sea a gun borrowed for protection. Some might call it suicide; others, obedience unto death. It is his final decisive act. In the doing of it, the man transforms into Him Whom he contemplates and serves. He calls his daughter from a public phone to leave her a last indelible word, an indirect mandate: “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.”

Not until the final scene is the priest’s fatal decision grasped as an illumination, with nothing absurd about it. It is a moment of perfect clarity into the Christian meaning of atonement. The call to expiation is a terrible beckoning. But this priest answers it in full and bloodied trust in the works—unglimpsed behind the veil of the mystery of evil—of a forbearing God. All inklings of barren suicide dissolve in the glance exchanged between the grieving daughter and the killer—tentative now, shorn of bravado. The scene goes by in a blink. But the soundless purity of that instant holds a foretaste of redemption.

Bernanos was right: Grace is everywhere.


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Sheen Center Pre Partum Blues

The single New Testament reference to anything that comes close to the arts is that messy episode with Herodias’ daughter. Was it dirty dancing? Or “natural” dance, precursor to Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the pioneers of improvisational movement? Either way, we know how the program ended.


Adolph Gustav Mossa. Salomé (early 20th C.)

There are better reasons to be uneasy about the efficacy of the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Art and Culture as the zenith of evangelization. History is full of mischief. The Center has already suffered two blows before the ribbons are cut.

Expensively architected and stage-designed, the state-of-the-art center lost its scheduled executive director. Msgr. Michael F. Hull—erstwhile pastor of the Church of the Guardian Angel in Chelsea, Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Joseph’s Seminary, and ardent member of MoMA—has gone missing. The journalist who had interviewed him in March for The Wall Street Journal tells me that the monsignor “left the Church.”

To clarify, I phoned the rectory at Guardian Angel. The resident priest who answered said: “I know nothing of his whereabouts.” A call to Dunwoodie elicited only the comment that Msgr. Hull was no longer there. Was there anyone at the seminary who could answer a few questions about the Center itself? Who has taken on directorship in the monsignor’s absence? After a lengthy pause, the receptionist offered to connect me to the Center’s press office. Unable to put the call through, she told me to email. Next, I tried the phone number listed for the Center. It connects only to a ticketing service. (“Have your credit card ready. If you are calling about Ticket Mania’s Gold Club . . . .”)

Immersion in the arts can have unintended side effects. Conversion can go both ways.


Louis Boilly. The Effect of Melodrama (1830). Musée Lambinet, Versailles


Bishop Sheen, as he was known, was a great evangelist, perhaps the greatest of the twentieth century. His humanity, graceful wit, and scholarship—carried so nimbly—were matchless gifts to broad audiences. He was a captivating performer whose radio and television ministry instructed and enlivened generations. His own bearing no less than his words testified that peace of soul does not come from man himself. To this day, the Emmy award-winning priest has no equal.

Yet that is not necessarily why the Center was named after him. Other names are better known to the demographic most likely to frequent the downtown theater scene. But the archbishop, elevated to Venerable in 2012, was expected to be canonized soon, possibly as early as next year. With his remains buried beneath the main altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the new Center would serve as a fashionable annex to the shrine St. Patrick’s would become.

That could explain why the archdiocese initiated a colossal and costly cleaning project of St. Patrick’s. The interior is nearly invisible under miles of planks and scaffolding that will remain into 2015. The narthex has been outfitted with two crass dispensing machines that spit out souvenir medallions. Add a glitzy billboard for tourists too jet-lagged to recognize which attraction they are standing in. Insult follows with wee-bitsy votive candles that burn only for as long as it takes to deposit two dollars in the mite box.

It is a short walk from those vending machines to suspicion that the bazaar was triggered by anticipation of pilgrims to St. Fulton Sheen’s tomb. But there’s the rub: It was announced at the beginning of this month that the cause for Archbishop Sheen’s canonization has been suspended. It is a sad, unedifying story of clerical politics. Fr. Roger J. Landry, over at The National Catholic Register, covered the battle of the bones in detail. His commentary deserves to be read in full. 


Achille Beltrone. Theatre on a TransAtlantic Liner (1919).


Bishop Sheen was a virtuoso in distinguishing between the anodyne of his era—psychoanalysis—and the true source of the soul’s freedom from unease. His essays, particularly “The Philosophy of Anxiety” and “Psychoanalysis and Confession,” have not aged. Were he writing and speaking today, it is tempting to think he would address that other false god of our time: art-and-culture, a compound word that tallies up to money and religion at the same time. 

The Center expects to become self-supporting. Which means it expects to make a profit as an institution for rent. Described by its own in-house consultant Nick Leavens as simply “a new off-Broadway arts complex,” it will function as a hub for the circulation of tax exempt monies. Playbill quotes the press release:

Companies who have already signed on to use The Sheen Center include The New York International Fringe Festival, Strange Sun Theater, /the claque/, Terranova, Wingspan Arts, MorDance and Voyager Theater Company.

The Sheen Center will also house four spacious studios of varying sizes, which will be available for rehearsals, meetings and classes, among others. The Studios at The Sheen Center will be available for rent seven days a week. Art gallery space on the main floor will feature a full rotating schedule of exhibits. It will also be available as a space for intimate receptions.

The  complex stands on the site of the defunct parish of Our Lady of Loretto which became a Catholic Charities shelter for homeless men more than seventy years ago. The name of the Center’s largest performance space, the 250-seat Loretto Auditorium, nods to the displacement of the Bowery homeless by the city’s expanding arts-and-culture scene. In gutting the old structure, rebuilding, and outfitting it to create an arts center, the archdiocese mimics the trajectory of the country’s declining manufacturing sector.

All across the country, old mills, factory buildings and processing plants have been repurposed as some combination of studio, exhibition, or museum space for contemporary art. Think of Mass MoCA, the converted factory complex in North Adams, Massachusetts; or DIA, once a thriving Nabisco plant that supported working class Newburgh. These and hundreds of lesser known arts-related renovations stamp the landscape of post-industrial America.

Following suit, Sheen Center is the archdiocese’s monument to post-Catholicism.

Max Oppenheimer. Salomé (1919). Private collection, Milan.


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Lucifer, Patron of the Arts

Consider how beautiful the devil must be. A fallen angel is an angel still. Seeing him fall, Jesus likened the plunge to “lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18). Lucifer appears a pulsing field of light, a flash of pure spirit. All luminous intelligence, he is bright as the morning star, radiant as dawn. Were he not, temptation would be beggared. It would be too dull, too unsightly, to gain purchase on the human heart.

William Blake. Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels (c.1803-5). Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Folded within the history of art is the history of the struggle to depict moral deformity. Master of disguise, demonic cunning cuckolds the eye. In default of better means, visual art personifies the prince of lies—or, in that marvelous phrase, prince of the power of the air—with grotesque physiognomy. It is a familiar convention that incarnates disproportion and hurls defiance at canons of beauty.

The Middle Ages had a genius for monstrous iconography. Its repertory developed in fear and dismay at the conditions the son of disobedience instigates. Claws, hooves, horns, bat wings, and loathsome grimaces illustrate a culture’s recoil from his works. But what of his own self?

William Blake came closer to the apparent truth of the Rebel Angel and his divisions than did painters of misshapen monsters rising out of hot pitch to ride herd on the damned. Contra centuries of depiction, and hellholes full of sharpened bidents, Lucifer is alluring.

William Blake. Mortal Sin (c. 1805). Huntington Library & Art Collection, San Marino, CA.

How radiant, lithesome, and well formed Blake presents him. All masculine beauty, Lucifer moves with athletic grace, more dancer than demon. From a figure so fair and commanding must come a voice low, melodic and seductive. He speaks with the tongue of angels. After all, he is one.

And Lucifer is accomplished—as we need our tempters to be. Accomplishment is a magnet for those who prefer to suffer the tragedy of existence in concert halls and theaters, away from the trenches of the lived life. Might our trickster even be pianist enough to scrap his sheet music and play Mozart by heart?

However he comports himself in other times and places, in our own the hellion keeps up with fashion. With an eye on all things current, he guards a natty wardrobe of ideas. Charming at table, polished at the lectern, he talks with passion about the good, the true, and the beautiful. Like John Walsh, director emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum, he professes belief that works of art make “an audience of happier, wiser, more complete people.” Without a doubt, Lucifer is a patron of the arts.

Blue state all the way. 


William Blake. Moses Erecting the Brazen Serpent (c.1803). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA.

What brings on this end-of-summer reverie, you wonder? It is this: Next Monday, September 15, Cardinal Dolan cuts the ribbon on the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Art and Culture, a non-profit initiative that views itself, in His Eminence’s words, as “America’s premier center for The New Evangelization.” It is an ambitious undertaking. The Cardinal continues:

Its goal is to bring practicing Catholics closer to the faith, attract and accompany “lapsed” Catholics in returning to the Church, and introduce non-Catholics to the person, message, and invitation of Christ.

Fine sentiments. But the swagger and the timing could hardly be worse. The archdiocese plays art patron on the downtown scene while parishes are shrinking, schools and churches closing under the juggernaut of an archdiocesan pastoral planning extravaganza with the Orwellian title “Making All Things New.” A more candid title would have been “Staving Off Bankruptcy.” But in our hope-and-change era, stirring, focus-grouped slogans deflect attention from somber realities.

While financial realism was turning parish pastors into corporate-style administrators, the archdiocese found means for a 25,000 square foot boost to the arts-and-entertainment economy of the Lower East Side. Sheen Center will house two theaters, four rehearsal spaces, exhibition and archival space. A chapel, too. Fully staffed, promoted, and board-of-directed by the great and the good, it will sponsor plays, opera, symposia, concerts, dance, and celebrate “momentous events and occasions in the life of the Church, the archdiocese, and community.” It promises to help us “uplift ourselves, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, intellectually, artistically, and spiritually.”

In short, a high-end clambake. Is it likely to enhance the credibility and cohesion of the Church’s teaching authority? Or will it dwindle into a white elephant like the John Paul II Cultural Center in D.C.? (Built in 2001, it was a financial disaster sold to the Knights of Columbus ten years later at a stunning multi-million dollar loss to the diocese —Detroit—that had funded it.)

I wish the Sheen Center well. But optimism is on hold. The project gives off the aroma of episcopal vanity and utopian swank. We can explore the reasons next time. For now, it is enough to hold close Vigo Demant’s caution against using a Christian idiom to capitulate to secular enthusiasms.

Canon Demant’s Our Culture: Its Christian Roots and Present Crisis is as trenchant now, for varying reasons, as it was in 1947. Thinking about the character of ambition implicit in the Sheen Center, I cannot dislodge from memory his comment on the men of antiquity “who went down under the barbarian darkness still professing their belief in deathless Rome.”

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Last Rites; Last Responses

The last days of August. It is time to let be. Time to lie in a hammock and take bribes. Read. Doze. Plan the rest of my life. Anything except trawl for words at a computer. 


Girl on a Swing in Central Park. New York Historical Society.


But first, let me post the last of the comments that came in on the declension of Extreme Unction into an all-purpose Anointing of the Sick. A thread that runs through them is recognition of what one respondent refers to as a lack of discernment—or faithful discharge—on the part of either priest or parishioner. Sometimes both. Let me leave you until September with someone else’s words. (Mine have packed a bag and are waiting at the station.) Each of these speaks for itself.

An Orthodox deacon treats the historicity of the Anointing of the Sick with a care that makes his letter valuable:

It seems to me that the post VCII rite, if discharged faithfully, might be more like it’s Orthodox counterpart, at least theologically. Orthodox unction has always been “healing unto salvation,” so has not had the “last rites” component, although it is nonetheless a common feature of end-of-life ministrations. Significantly, it can be done in conjunction with confession; it isn’t required nor expected, necessarily.

But it’s that “discharged faithfully” business that is the real tragedy for Catholics. I’m only a deacon and would not think of going to a hospital or nursing home in anything but a collar, and would also always have a cassock and an orarion in the trunk in case someone wants to commune.

Also, we have done our best to insulate ourselves from the solemn reality of death. We are just now, in Orthodoxy, starting to have families want cremations (nyet!), closed caskets (except due to extreme disfigurement, NYET!), and to avoid seeing the lowering of the coffin into the grave (only recently become optional). Avoiding that last one gives us, or so we think, a temporary reprieve from having to consider death in it’s entirety-but it’s only a hall pass, not an “excused.”

A priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross writes to confirm distinctions between the rite itself and way it is conducted:

A distinction certainly exists [between the sick and the dying] but it does not exist within rubrics or the rites. The distinction is in the actual praying/celebrating of the sacrament . . . as well as a detrimental lack in discernment.

Catholics have forgotten how to discern the sacraments. For example, am I properly disposed to receive the Eucharist? This question is complicated by the lamentable assumption that one’s Sunday obligation entails receiving the Eucharist rather than the truth of the matter that one’s obligation is merely in attending the Mass.

Is my illness dangerous and/or serious? From the very start, James 5:13-15 says, “He should summon the presbyters of the Church.” Implicit in that “should summon” is the discernment that a person is sick. So sick that s/he can’t go TO the presbyters but must summon them.

This lack of discernment—[thinking that] anyone goes up for communion and that a hangnail warrants anointing—is more lamentable than any sort of systematic liturgical destruction of the sacrament of anointing. There is a problem indeed. It’s not with the rite but with wise discernment and reverential prayer.

There was common agreement that the sacrament, while deservedly offered to someone facing surgery or risky treatments, has been diminished in practice. This respondent adds a rueful note that raises a question less about the rite itself than about the culture of priestly training:

It [the sacrament of Anointing] is made not so important because one can just go the sacristy after Mass and be anointed. And it is true that instead of a dignified sacrament which may also include confession and holy communion, I personally know of priests refusing to hear a confession saying it is not needed as the anointing covers everything.

Fr. E. writes to remind that the Anglican tradition recognized the gravity of the rites designed for death. He quotes the rubrics from “Communion of the Sick” in the Book of Common Prayer. Reading the passage, it is impossible not to note the gulf between the older ceremonial seriousness and today’s demotic expectations shaped, as they are, not by religious sensibility but by popular culture. As you read, notice the emphasis on the communal aspect of the sacrament (“two at the least”) and the implicit assumption that the home visited is familiar with the protocols of the rite (“all things necessary so prepared”):

Forasmuch as all mortal men be subject to many sudden perils, diseases, and sicknesses, and ever uncertain what time they shall depart out of this life; therefore, to the intent they may always be in a readiness to die, whensoever it shall please Almighty God to call them, the Curates shall diligently from time to tim . . . exhort their Parishioners to the often receiving of the holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, when it shall be publickly ministered in the Church . . . . But if the sick person be not able to come to the Church, and yet is desirous to receive the Communion in his house; then he must give timely notice to the Curate, signifying also how many there are to communicate with him, (which shall be three, or two at the least,) and having a convenient place in the sick man’s house, with all things necessary so prepared, that the Curate may reverently minister, he shall there celebrate the holy Communion, beginning with the Collect, Epistle, and Gospel, here following.

Lastly, a spirited letter from the pseudonymous Clay Potts. He has no patience with priests who permit themselves to be buffaloed out of their cassocks:

A soldier, especially during times of war, is required to always appear in his uniform, even in non-combat situations, primarily as to deter the soldier from desertion, from abandoning his post, from blending into the crowd; And, as to remain ever battle ready.

A soldier’s uniform also serves to instill in a military force, self-confidence and popular confidence, as well as to diminish the enemy’s popular and self-confidence. Even a soldier operating a military drone seated in at a desk a thousands of miles away from the battlefield wears the uniform. How much confidence would a soldier dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts and sandals and seated at the command center with his finger on the nuclear button, instill in the public? . . . Or, a surgeon entering the operating theatre dressed in a bright gold Steeler’s sweatshirt and sweatpants? . . .

Even an off-duty cop will spring into action when he or she sees a crime being committed! They know they have a moral and ethical duty to take charge of the situation regardless of the danger to themselves. They don’t even think about it, they just react, it’s second nature. And, yet a priest is prepared to walk onto the eternal battle field of the deathbed dressed in street clothes?! Or fail to take charge of the deathbed?

All gratitude to each of you who took time and thought to respond. Enjoy this summer’s end. We will meet again in September. 

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A Correction

The freedom of a weblog comes with one high-voltage hazard: the absence of a proofreader. Unsung and half-resented, a proofreader is every writer’s guardian angel, a protector of literacy and the credibility that rests on it.


Keepers of blogs are home alone with their own prose. And their own slippages. Their copy is at the mercy of their mind’s eye, a treacherous thing that insists on seeing what it expects to see instead of what is really on the screen. There is no one nearby to signal a warning like this:

Hey, you cited the author of The Mass of the Roman Rite as Joseph Youngmann. Shouldn’t it be Jungmann?

Yes, it should. Mea maxima culpa. There is no excuse. 


Manuscript of Pío Baroja, as famous for his grammatical errors as for his prose.

An eminent liturgical scholar, Joseph Jungmann, S.J., dedicated himself to writing a comprehensive history of the Mass in 1939. Beginning work on the text in earnest around 1942, he called the work “a child of war.” It was difficult during the war years to gain access to manuscripts and incunabula critical to periods under discussion. Fortunately, most of the necessary material on the primitive Church and up to the late Middle Ages, even into the sixteenth century, could be had in translation (which included Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syrian) or in modern editions.

Collating a great mass of material and crowded with citations, the text grew from the stringencies of what Fr. Jungmann called “a sort of scientific conscience.” Technical and precise, his history of “the Mass-liturgy” remains a consummate work of loving scholarship:

This book is not meant to serve only for knowledge—even the knowledge of the most precious object in the Church’s accumulated treasure—but is intended for life, for a fuller grasp of that mystery of which Pope Pius XII says in his encyclical Mediator Dei: “The Mass is the chief act of divine worship; it should also be the source and center of Christian piety.”

His introduction closes with this caution against antiquarianism for its own sake:

It is not the fact of antiquity that makes liturgical customs valuable, but their fullness of content and their expressive value. Even newer ceremonies, like the priest’s blessing at the end of Mass, can possess a great beauty.

[That second sentence was written in innocence of today’s dismissals that, often as not, follow the blessing with: “Have a nice day.” It is a safe bet Fr. Jungmann would prefer the ancient command: “Go, catechumens!”]

At the time of its publication, in Vienna, 1949, the two-volume text was the single most authoritative study of the origins and development of the Roman Mass. It is still in print. It endures as a fascinating and enriching study of the springs of our transmitted culture.



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