Monday, December 11, 2017

The Crown (Season 2)

I first subscribed to Netflix almost a year ago in order to see The Crown, the projected six-season series spanning the 60 years-plus reign of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. Since then, I've seen lots of other great things on Netflix (not least the French series The Churchmen), but The Crown remains for me the Netflix star attraction. So, along with lots of others, I have been eagerly watching season 2 since its release last week. The wait between seasons has been long, but the result did not disappoint!

If season 1 (1947-1956) was about Elizabeth's accession to the throne and her growing into her role as sovereign (and the toll that took on her and on her husband and on her sister), season 2 (1956-1964) shows her growing both as a person and as a sovereign and in the process allowing herself to re-imagine certain dimensions of her role. Meanwhile her husband and sister find their own way, while society changes dramatically. Through it all, Elizabeth remains a woman defined and determined by her role - a role defined not by what she wants but by what everyone else wants her to be (expectations which vary from person to person and change from place to place and time to time).

Monarchy is meant to be mysterious. Even more than season 1, season 2 is preoccupied with imaginative attempts to understand the inner familial dynamics of such an ostensibly - and deliberately so - mysterious institution. Meanwhile, as the 1950s fade into the 1960s, the Queen and her family find themselves grappling with unprecedented societal change, while Britain's post-war decline as a major power is amply demonstrated by failure at Suez and post-colonial Ghana's flirtations with the Soviets.

Although always the one who holds it all together, Elizabeth shares the spotlight in season 2 with Philip (whose at times petulant behavior finally gets him some of the recognition and behind-the-throne power that the palace's army of stuffy and increasingly out of touch courtiers had hitherto tried to deny him) and Margaret (whose dabbling in non-courtier society finally gets her a husband, unlike any her family would have picked for her, played perfectly by the glamorous Matthew Goode).

If there was one weakness in season 1, it was certainly its somewhat sympathetic portrayal of the utterly undeserving Duke of Windsor, whose self-centered abdication of duty has likely always been the Queen's alternative model of what kind of monarch - and person - not to be. Season 2 sets the record straight about the Duke in one devastating episode that highlights his disgraceful behavior before and during the war.

Politics plays more of a real role in season 2 as well, reflecting the Queen's maturation in her role and the replacement of Winston Churchill by less accomplished successors. Elizabeth's successful visit to Ghana is historically accurate, although the suggestion that she was motivated by jealousy of Jacqueline Kennedy's celebrity seems somewhat bizarre and demeaning to both women. But the episode does highlight how the essence of royalty really is the opposite of the fragile ephemera of celebrity. Fittingly, the episode unmasks the vacuousness of much of the Kennedys' celebrity while highlighting the Queen's dignity (even while allowing her to show some human resentment, jealousy, and competitiveness).

It has generally been believed that one of the ways the royal marriage has worked has been by allowing Philip to take charge of his children's education - with disastrous effect upon the present Prince of Wales, who was forced to endure the terrifying experience of Gordonstoun, where his physically and emotionally very different father had once thrived. That episode (for which the audience has been prepared with background information on Philip's childhood revealed by a questioner during a disastrous interview he foolishly allowed a few episodes earlier during his Pacific tour) does dramatically and effectively - and even somewhat sympathetically - recall Philip's childhood as a dispossessed refugee prince, with dysfunctional parents, abandoned to the rigors of a school which in turn became his substitute for a family (along with the famous "Uncle Dickie" Mountbatten, whose patronage of course would prove so significant for Philip and whose friendship would matter so much for Charles). 

Whatever sympathy Philip wins in that episode, however, is largely cancelled not just by the effect on his son but also by his continued behavior in ways which threaten to throw suspicion on his fidelity to  his marriage.. The series may be taking too much liberty in its suggestions, but it serves the dramatic purpose of highlighting how the continually dutiful Queen is constantly surrounded by seemingly much more flawed people - like Philip and Margaret, and of course the politicians.

The Profumo scandal that titillated me and my high school friends in 1963 was a tragic episode that did a lot to undermine what was left of Britain's governing class's legitimacy. Starting with Suez and ending with Profumo, the series frames the loss of the governing class's capacity to govern - paving the way for the greater changes of the 1960s. That final episode fittingly has a little bit of everything that the Queen has to cope with - another government crisis, tensions within the extended royal family exacerbated by Margaret's willfulness, and of course the perennial mystery of how the royal marriage works. 

The season is bookended by the personal and political failures of two Prime Ministers - Eden and Macmillan, both of whom resign in poor health and political disappointment. Their failures give Elizabeth one of her greatest lines in the season. After accepting Macmillan's resignation, she says of her three Prime Ministers in 10 years: "Not one of them has lasted the course. They've either been too old, too ill, or too weak. A confederacy of elected quitters."

The Queen, of course, is neither elected nor a quitter, and that captures the essence of her role and its success. Across the pond, as we watch our American political system deteriorate further and further, its moral rot in significant measure due to its elevation of celebrity over seriousness and self-interest over duty, we may have more and more reason to envy the stabilizing, unifying, and moralizing power of the mysterious magic of monarchy.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Be Eager!

Almost two weeks ago, midway between Thanksgiving and Advent, I went to Louisville for the annual meeting of the bishops and priests’ councils of the Louisville Province. Like any American city at this time of year, Louisville - or, at least the little bit of downtown that I saw - was all bright and beautiful with Christmas trees and lights and other holiday trimmings and touches. It’s that so very special time of year, when the world really brightens up and seems even to cheer up – or at least it tries to.

In our commercial, capitalist culture, of course, there is profit to be made in manufacturing holiday cheer. For the rest of us, how cheerful we feel may depend on what kind of year we have had and what kind of year we believe it has been for the world. Imagine, for example, what it was like preparing for Christmas 100 years ago, in 1917, in that terrible final year of World War I, the war that pretty much ruined everything for the 20th century. Still, Christmas came, as it always does in both good times and in bad. Silent Night was sung in the languages of the different combatants. And soldiers and civilians alike did their best to find comfort where they could.

Times were tough too in Israel – her capital in ruins, her Temple destroyed - when Isaiah spoke the consoling words we just heard. Just when everything seemed so hopeless, the prophet proclaimed glad tidings and good news. It’s enough to make you sit up and pay attention. Here comes with power the Lord God. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. Power and glory are good, but when you’re hungry – and we are all hungry for something – the promise of being fed, as a shepherd feeds his flock, that’s good news indeed!

On this 2nd Sunday of Advent, the good news comes to us in three voices. First, we hear Isaiah’s prophetic announcement. Not for nothing is Isaiah Advent’s pre-eminent prophet. Then comes the actual voice of one crying out in the desert, John the Baptist’s New Testament prophetic fulfillment - calling out to us to elicit our response. Sandwiched between them and so easy to overlook, we hear Peter, speaking for the Church, proposing our response.

And like the Israelites in exile and like those early Christians to whom Peter wrote, we wonder what this all means. Both Isaiah and Peter had to respond to the tension – the personal and social stress – of being in-between, of being between the challenging and perplexing present in which we still find ourselves and the promising future for which we have been taught to hope.

If anything, living in the in-between may be even harder for us that in was for those early Christians Peter was addressing. Our contemporary way of life with its ultra-fast pace and information overload is sort of like a collective case of attention-deficit-disorder. Like our ancestors unexpectedly caught up in a catastrophic world war a century ago, we are also a civilization in distress, but we are, if anything, even less able to see our way through, thanks to our technologically induced impatience.

But God is patient with us, Peter assures us, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. And so, he asks us to ask ourselves, what sort of persons ought we to be, here and now, in this in-between time, while we wait not just for Christmas morning and the presents we expect to find under our tree, but for that endless Christmas dinner our entire life is a preparation for?

Advent asks more questions than it answers. The answer, of course, is Christmas, which even now has the power to light up the world because Christ came into the world a long time ago. How much brighter will the world be when we respond fully to Advent’s invitation to become Christmas people and recognize Christ’s coming among us in the here and now, living in his Church which continues his presence and action in the world? When the full reality of Christ’s coming finally makes a difference for each one of us. Meanwhile, be eager, as Peter says, to find him - and to be found by him.

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 10, 2017.

Friday, December 8, 2017

"Our Hope in the Terrible Days We Live in.”

Last week, while in Louisville for a meeting, I stopped at the historical marker commemorating a major moment in the life of the famous 20th-century American monk Thomas Merton, who was one of the four famous Americans Pope Francis mentioned in his address to Congress in 2015.

On March 18, 1858, at what was then the corner of 4th and Walnut, Merton suddenly realized that no one could be totally alien to him. It was, he said “as if waking from a dream.” Suddenly, he realized that he could have no “more glorious destiny” than as “a member of the human race … since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!”

I am reminded of Merton today also because a decade earlier he had written that the definition of the Immaculate Conception “was a turning point in the modern history of the Church,” for “the world “has been put into the hands of our Immaculate Lady and she is our hope in the terrible days we live in.” [November 10, 1947]

Anticipating Merton’s hope a century earlier, in 1846 the Bishops of the United States had proclaimed Mary the patroness of the United Sates under the title of her Immaculate Conception. So today, already an especially grace-filled day the entire Church, is even more especially so for our country and for our own local parish community, under the special patronage of the Immaculate Conception since 1855.

The Immaculate Conception is the Church’s belief that, thanks to the salvation accomplished by her Son, Mary was preserved from all sin from the very beginning of her earthly existence and thus came into the world completely holy – thus most fully exemplifying that “glorious destiny” of the human race, thanks to her Son’s membership in it.

The story we just heard from the Old Testament [Genesis 3:9-15, 20] highlights the unity of the human race and already points ahead to God’s becoming one of us to salvage our “glorious destiny” from the damage Adam and Eve and the rest of us have done to ourselves and to the rest of the world, through our alienation from God. Mary, however, holy Mary, represents the healing effect of God’s far-greater power, empowering Mary, as we just heard in the Gospel [Luke 1:26-38], to say Yes to God where Adam and Eve and the rest of us have repeatedly said No.

The story calls Eve the mother of all the living, because in spite of everything the human race continues toward its “glorious destiny,” which Mary’s holiness exemplifies for us.

Homily for the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 8, 2017.

Photo: Immaculate Conception Window, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Sunday Shopping

Anyone as old as I am will remember when Sundays (and holidays) were really Sundays (and holidays) - in other words, when stores were closed, and the one thing one absolutely did not expect to do on Sunday was to go shopping. I don't remember exactly when the change occurred. It was probably gradual as laws changed, and more and more stores opened for more and more hours, depriving workers and customers alike of their traditional day of rest. The transformation must have been in full swing by the 1990s, because I remember visiting London at the end of 1992 and remarking how refreshing it was that stores there were still closed on Sunday and that the main noise on Sunday morning was that of church bells! 

Recently, Poland's Parliament has taken a courageous stand for the restoration of Sunday. This humane, anti-capitalist measure was supported by both the Catholic Church (still strong enough in Poland to matter socially) and Poland's still strong labor movement (which still prizes its identity as a movement in the interests of workers rather than business). The new legislation restricts Sunday shopping in the new year, restricts it further in 2019, and then outlaws it almost completely (with just a few exceptions) after that.

The U.S. is probably too far gone down the path of total surrender to predatory capitalism ever to hope to see such a reform here. (Witness the growing phenomenon of stores opening on Thanksgiving Day!) 

And, of course one of the biggest casualties of the corruption of Sunday in this country has been church attendance!

The U.S. is not likely to imitate Poland. But what the Polish example reminds us is that these are choices that we have made and continue to make. There was nothing inevitable about  the choice to make consumerist predatory capitalism our highest cultural value. It was a choice we as a society consciously and deliberately made. And what a world of far greater value we have lost as a result!

Monday, December 4, 2017

Novitiate (The Movie)

The film Novitiate follows the story of Cathleen, raised in rural Tennessee in the 1950s by an irreligious single mother, and her experience as a postulant and then novice in a cloistered convent in the mid-1960s. It focuses on what was going on inside her and inside the convent - but also on the complicating consequences for religious life of the Second Vatican Council, simultaneously taking place in the world outside. Movies made about religious life by those outside the experience inevitably suffer from secular society's incomprehension and misunderstanding. This film also displays more than its share of historical errors and implausibilities. Still it captures something about the mystery - and romanticism - of discerning a religious vocation in any era and especially in the confusing late 20th-century.

Although irreligious, Cathleen's mother exposes her daughter to religion and eventually sends her to a Catholic girls' school, where she comes under the influence of the good Sisters and discovers a religious vocation - not, however, to a teaching order but to an enclosed contemplative community. Her actual grounding in the faith seems somewhat ambiguous, but she is clearly captivated by the idea pf being in love with God. She is also a loner, from a dysfunctional family, searching for stability and - as she describes her first childhood experience of Mass - peace.

The film portrays Cathleen's mother's reluctance to see her daughter do this as well as the seemingly incomprehensible (to a secular mentality) practices of pre-conciliar religious life. Presumably it serves the plot's purpose to emphasize those aspects and merely to mention - but seldom to illustrate - any of the "joys" of religious life. There are some scenes of "normal" behavior among the postulants, who are, after all, teenage girls, and there are expressions of kindness and care among the Sisters, but they are subordinated to an overall impression of archaic and inhumane religious observance that seems to have become an end in itself - especially in the hands of a difficult Mother Superior. (Likewise, the presentation of the celebration of the community's Mass is consistently inaccurate and reflects little familiarity with how it would have actually been celebrated or much understanding of how it would actually have been experienced by its contemporary participants.)

That said, the Mother Superior's seeming obsession with religious observances provides a distinctive context within which Cathleen (and her sister postulants and novices) struggle to discern their vocation, struggle to translate their natural human neediness and romanticized image of being a "Bride of Christ" into some kind of actual lived reality, which, as the Mother Superior tells them on the first day, requires "work." Like any young person seeking to live a holy life, Cathleen has to struggle with what faith means, what love means, and what community means, while still growing up to become an adult woman - with all that that process entails.

Meanwhile the outside world impinges on the convent's enclosed life through the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The Mother Superior is portrayed as extremely resistant - to the extent that she tries to hide the Council's prescriptions from the other Sisters. It is only due to the intervention of the local archbishop - unattractively portrayed as a stereotypical ecclesiastical careerist out to enforce what he sees as the company line - that any changes come to the monastery. In fact, however, only two changes actually occur in the course of the movie - Mass celebrated versus populum in English and a significant departure of nuns from the convent - the first not actually prescribed by the Council and the second certainly not intended by it. There is no serious grappling here with the what the Council actually did prescribe or the renewal of religious life which it in fact intended - something that really existing religious communities actually did experience with varying mixtures of good, bad, and confusing consequences. There is certainly a real story that could have been told about the disruptive effect of the Council and its unintended consequences.  But the movie only alludes to that reality. 

In her resistance to the supposed mandates of the Council, however, the Mother Superior's character is more deeply revealed. Her fetishizing of religious observances turns out to reflect her own quest for identity and belonging. She had, she admits in a crucial scene, no family, no home, and had come to the convent in search of precisely those things - an identity and sense of purpose which the seemingly oppressive observances of religious life had given her. So it turns out that she and Cathleen are a lot alike. She is, I suspect, what Cathleen would have been 40 years earlier, and Cathleen is probably what the Mother Superior would have been if she were a novice 40 years later. Both sought in religious life the identity, sense of purpose, and experience of community and belonging that their secular lives failed to provide. In Cathleen's case, the convent was her alternative to her mother's chaotic life. To a modern secularist ideologue, her mother's dysfunctional life may represent liberation. For Cathleen, however, it was something to escape from. The final credit announcing that 90,000 nuns left their convents in the immediate aftermath of the Council may be meant to suggest liberation for Cathleen and many others like her. In fact, if the convent proved to be a different kind of trap for Cathleen from the home life she escaped from, then perhaps the message is not how that dysfunctional home life was any less a trap, but rather how elusive freedom really is - at least for most people in this world.

A better, more nuanced presentation of the pros and cons of traditional religious observances might have better illuminated not only the real and tragic toll which the obsessive preoccupation with religious observances may have imposed on Religious, but also the benefits an ordered, structured, purpose-filled life may have provided them. The movie makes clear the Mother Superior's fear that the letting go of such observances might spell the end of religious life - at least as she knew it - and thus the end of the stability, sense of purpose, and community belonging she had found. The massive departures of nuns and sisters which the film seemingly celebrates would seem to confirm the Mother Superior's intuition. But what of those that remained - or future Cathleen's that might subsequently come in search of something? The movie does not ask or answer that question. If the Mother Superior's model of religious life had made a pagan idol of religious observances, what would eventually take their place? In today's world, an over-obsession with religious observances may be replaced by an over-obsession with work. For some, perhaps, work would fill that gap and replace the idol of religious observances with an alternative, catch-all, alternative idol of "mission."