Category: Film


AMDG            Yesterdays Homily for the feast of the Presentation given in Oxford 

touching-the-void-posterA few years ago I read a book called Touching the Void – it was one of those books that you can’t put down and I thing I read it in three sittings in the space of 24 hours…… it told the story of climber called Joe Simpson and his friend who had a climbing accident in a remote mountain in the Andes…….. After breaking his leg, his friend lowered him down, attached by a rope, in rapidly worsening conditions, till eventually he was lowered off a cliff. Finding themselves at a dangerous impasse, he had to make an excruciating choice, they wither both wait and die, or he cuts the rope abandoning his friend to almost certain death, but probably survives himself.

He cut the Rope.

Amazingly his friend was to survive, and crawl back to the base six days later.…………However  going back to that night when the rope was cut, he fell and landed on a ledge.  When he was sitting on the ledge, alone, forsaken …. and staring death in the face, Joe Simpson decided there was no God.  He encountered  a void……  He would have experienced what St Ignatius would refer to as an acute desolation.   The recently canonised Jesuit Pierre Favre, talks about intense experiences in prayer ‘where God withdraws his presence’. Not permanently ….. but in a way to teach us when we are in danger of taking God for granted.  In the time of the Ezekiel, about 600 years before the birth of Christ – he predicted a chilling prophecy ‘ That the Glory of the Lord would leave the Temple’ .  This would be devastating news for the people, that temple was where humans and God were reconciled;  it was the unique place to encounter God, the one place where sacrifice to God was allowed.  Can you imagine how the People must have felt when Ezekiel prophesied that the Glory of the Lord would leave the temple’.  The temple would soon be destroyed by the Babylonians,  for the Jewish People it was a communal experience of touching the void.

images (1)So we can appreciate today’s readings, and particularly the Joy of the Prophets Simeon and Anna in the light of this experience of desolation.   Firstly we heard the Prophet Malachi in the first reading,  ‘And suddenly there will come to the temple the LORD whom you seek,’  – this prophecy would give great hope….. but none would expect the manner of the Lord’s coming.  And so today we hear how the child Jesus is presented before God in the Temple. We are told that Simeon is awaiting the consolation of the people Israel – and as he holds this child in his arms he believes this promise is finally fulfilled .  With the eyes of a prophet he recognises the presence of the Lord in this small child, and utters the words of that beautiful prayer ‘The Nunc Dimitiss’ which is said by millions of us each night at Compline.  Similarly the prophetess Anna, having spent years of prayer and fasting in the temple in anticipation of this moment, she rejoices in the Lord having returned to the temple.

The return to the temple of the Lord has profound significance for Christians on two levels….. Firstly in the physical, historical presence of the Lord – the presence of God on this planet is transformed.  In the incarnation – God is no longer limited to the Temple…. No longer limited to one city, one place.  Christ’s Body becomes the Temple – so as he dies on the cross, the curtain in the Temple that veils the Holy of Holies mysteriously is torn into two.  Then on the second level – the temple is the place of sacrifice, bulls and goats, doves and incense were offered to be burnt as thanksgiving offerings, guilt offerings, offerings at key moments in life e.g. childbirth.    When the Lord is presented in the Temple he will become the sacrifice that fulfils all other offerings – and we continue this sacrifice every day when we pray the beautiful prayer of the mass.  However in the sacrifice of the mass, the most beautiful prayer we can make, we relive the greatest sacrifice of all, Christ giving his body and blood for the sins of the world.  His sacrifice trumps all else – and this prayer is being offered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week all over the world, in great cathedrals and in simple chapels, in the heart of great cities and on the tops of mountains, in schools and universities and in rainforests.

So as the Lord is presented in the temple – let us renew our devotion to the mass – to Christ’s presence in the Liturgy of the Word and in the Eucharist, and in and amongst each other.  We are not alone – we are not abandoned – sitting on an icy edge of life,  when we gather together for mass, mysteriously we are in the real presence of God – whose grace works quietly and patiently transforming our hearts and our lives.

AMDG

I was blown away by Friday Nights Opening Ceremony.  It was beautiful, absorbing and emotional at times.  More than once it struck me as transcending mere ceremony to having a liturgical quality to it.  Whether it was the children’s choir hymn singing at the start, or the moving memorial to the victims of terrorism in the middle with its reflective change of pace, beautiful rendition of ‘Abide with Me’, or the powerful and symbolic lighting of the Olympic Flame at the end – ‘Easter Vigilesque’ – followed by the angel/bird like cyclist rising towards heaven.  These spiritual elements would have pleased Baron De Coubertin, the Jesuit educated founder of the modern Olympics who once said ‘  I tried from the beginning to awaken religious feelings by the renewal of Olympic movement … The sport-religious thought has entered only slowly into the awareness of the sports men and women … But little by little it will be taken quite seriously by them‘  (click here for reference).  I think that invoking of the power of the transcendent is when the ceremony moved into liturgical territory.

A previous Boyle / Boyce production

The religious elements may be no surprise when we take into account that the  author of the storyline to the opening ceremony was Liverpudlian Catholic writer Frank Cottrell Boyce.  I have been told that Cottrell Boyce is a regular visitor and guest at the Jesuit community here in Edinburgh.  His contribution was less hailed than that of Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of the opening ceremony. Danny Boyle was listed in a recent article of the Tablet on Britain’s most 100 influential Catholics.  Famously Boyle said in an interview, ‘I was meant to be a priest until I was 14, I was going to transfer to a seminary near Wigan. But this priest, Father Conway, took me aside and said, ‘I don’t think you should go’. Whether he was saving me from the priesthood or the priesthood from me, I don’t know. But quite soon after, I started doing drama. And there’s a real connection, I think. All these directors — Martin ScorseseJohn WooM. Night Shyamalan — they were all meant to be priests.’  One of my favourite films of recent years was Boyle’s production of Cottrell Boyce’s book Millions, about a young a 7-year-old English boy who talks to saints and comes upon a lot of money which he wants to distribute to the poor.  Boyle has since admitted to being a ‘spiritual atheist’, but in many of his works it is clear that there is a deep spiritual imagination and creativity at work.

It was nice that Boyle said that he agreed to take on the difficult task of following on from Beijing’s incredible opening ceremony because he was inspired by his dad who has since died.  I still remember him taking his Oscar in a carrier bag to show his dad after sunday mass at his parish social club of St Mary’s Radcliffe.   Much has been written about the influence of ‘Catholic Imagination’ – the idea that God lurks everywhere in creation, and so the move to the transcendent or spiritual from the mundane everyday is natural and smooth and almost imperceptible.  This is in contrast with another view of God being hidden or in conflict with the world, and so the spiritual is introduced in an explicit way, often jarring , like God is being ‘shoehorned’ in, often experienced in evangelical Christianity. I propose that Friday Nights fantastic ceremony was a product of the Catholic imagination of Frank Cottrell Boyce and Danny Boyle.

AMDG

Now I am not turning this into a celebrity tittle-tattle blog but  I have to admit to having carefully read some of the reporting about Tom Cruise’s divorce, particularly the insights into Scientology and how it operates.  What has struck me is that Katie Holmes, like Cruise’s previous wife Nicole Kidman, has decided to return to her Catholic faith after leaving Cruise and the clutches of Scientology.  In fact very few people know that Cruise himself was brought up a Catholic, and his faith was sufficiently serious enough that he tried out a religious vocation with the Franciscans in Cincinnati.  Both Kidman and Holmes are technically called ‘reverts’ – they have left the faith and converted to another and then come back again. Katie Holmes has registered with the Jesuit parish of Francis Xavier in New York (click here).  It is interesting to note that the tipping point for Holmes seems to have been that she didn’t want their child to be brought up within the cult-like confines of Scientology.  The dynamic of children bringing their parents back to the faith is something that we priests see quite a lot.  Of course it is easy to be cynical about the bulge in baptisms before the deadline for applications to Catholic Schools, but God is patient and infinitely generous and I have witnessed many purifications of intent.

Religious retention rates vary enormously through different faiths, churches and cults and sects. The impressive Pew Research Institute recently published these findings (right) about US religious retention rates – at the top of the list are the Hindu’s with 84% raised in that faith remaining Hindu.  The highest Christian group were Greek Orthodox (73%) and then Catholic (68%).  It was recently reported that the biggest religious group in the US are Catholics, and the second biggest group are lapsed Catholics! At the bottom of the pile are Atheists where only 30% brought up in an atheist household remained atheist.  For me this is not a surprise considering children often rebel, some of the most religious Catholic 20-somethings I’ve encountered have parents who were strongly atheist.  It may also ve because there is more hostility to atheism in the US than in Europe and other places. There are many factors why people convert and revert. For newer waves of immigrants – Hindus and Muslims for example – religious affiliation is the main part of their cultural identity and so the culture pressures on them to retain their religious traditions, if not beliefs, are high. The same is true for Hispanic Catholics, but less so for many Protestant groupings and sects that lack an the institutional depth.

I wonder if you can get odds with Paddy Power on Tom Cruise eventually reverting?

AMDG

With the temperatures regularly topping 40ºC the cooler evenings and nights are looked forward to at the moment. I have been told that the temperatures  will drop when the monsoons break in a few weeks.  When I arrived I would use the evenings to show films to the children. A few hundred of us would sit under the stars and project the films onto the school wall.  I was quite rigid in showing them English Language films with subtitles to aid their English learning. Also carefully chosen the films would expand their experience of the world, so we watched films about dinosaurs, robots, floating houses, space etc.  It was wonderful to watch with them as they cheered the heroes, gasped at the narrow escapes and booed the villains. A wonderfully responsive audience. I also had to be careful not to scandalise or frighten them,  a cultural minefield, I have learnt that copious violence seems acceptable but no kissing on the lips!  When the school year ended and the numbers dwindled, and also the IPL started (India’s Cricket League) I have changed tack.  Now we watch Kannada language movies – with English Subtitles.

Map courtesy of screenville

India makes more films than any other country in the world. The film industry is mainly centered on Mumbai (Bombay) hence the Bollywood tag.  Last year over a 1000 films were released in Hindi, double that of the US.  Taking into account that India also has a vibrant regional film making scene, some estimate there are an incredible 18 different regional film industries, often language based.  Tamil is possibly the second most important based in Chennai, after Jackie Chan they boast the highest paid Asian actor in a chap called Rajinikanth.  After Telugu, then the local Kannada language films are the fourth largest in India based in Bangalore. Referred to as ‘Sandalwood’ movies, I have spent the last couple of weeks watching these with a much smaller group of students.  This allows for a lot of learning from my part.  Many of the films are in the ‘Massala’ style which means they don’t conform to one particular genre, so amidst frequent and spectacular song and dance sequences, you will get a mix of drama, comedy, tragedy, action with a heavy dose of melodrama.  I have really enjoyed watching them, and equally enjoy the students reactions.  I have been particularly impressed by the knowledge that the students have of the directors names.  Film is really appreciated as an art-form here and the famous directors get more household recognition than maybe in the West.

After a few films I think I can spot some common themes.  Usually the film is based around a doomed love story. Often the relationship is inappropriate for crossing caste boundaries.  Inevitably the police and politicians are portrayed as corrupt and buffoons.  Usually there is a strong social message ‘the evils of drink’, ‘avoid gambling’ which is not so-subtly delivered. Presumably the films are made by an elite but certainly seem to be aimed at the majority lower castes, with the plucky hero and heroine overthrowing prejudice to let love conquer all.  But also it has been surprising for me to hear the students defend, quite passionately the system of arranged marriages. The point made to me, mainly by the girls, is that their parents consult with them and they choose carefully. They don’t seem that persuaded about my arguing for total freedom or liberty.  Looking at divorce rates in Europe and comparing them to here, it has given me some pause for thought. And almost all these students are Dalits, officially ‘out-castes’  so I was expecting them to be critically of the ‘economy’ of marriage here.

Scorsese and ‘Silence’

AMDG

The history of Christianity in Asia is marked by terrible suffering and persecution, mixed with power, corruption, ignorance, prejudice, cultural suspicions, terrible mistakes, acts of great  generosity and sacrifice. Some of the fiercest persecution was in Japan – after the success of the initial journeys of St Francis Xavier.  The story of the   martyrs of Japan is powerful and it should be known by a wider audience…….

Well hopefully it will be thanks to two men, award-winning Japanese author Shusako Endo and one of the greatest film directors of all-time, Martin Scorsese. Scorsese has announced his next project will be a film based on Endo’s classic novel  Silence.   Scorsese as a young man seriously considered the priesthood, even entering the seminary.  Now, having married 5 times he recently said –  “I’m a lapsed Catholic. But I am Roman Catholic, there’s no way out of it.  You do not have to look  hard at many of his films to see the Catholic influence.

The novel is based on the historical figures of three Jesuits –  and at the center of the story is the infamous Fr. Cristóvão Ferreira, who was the head of the Jesuit mission in Japan.  Ferreira was captured and committed apostasy after being tortured for five hours. The tortures for Christians were terrible often being hung upside down over a pit and slowly bled unless they denied the faith – often by publicly trampling on a crucifix.  Ferreira became the most famous of the “fallen priests”, converting to Shintoism, changing his name and writing a book entitled The Deception Revealed in 1636(a treatise against Christianity). He also participated in government trials of other captured Jesuits.  This was a great scandal and shame to many Christians.  Two young Jesuits were sent to Japan to succor the local Church and investigate reports that his mentor,  and if possible ‘bring him back’.

Having read the novel about twenty years ago, it has, according to Scorsese himself, “given me a kind of sustenance that I have found in only a very few works of art.”  Daniel-Day Lewis, Benicio Del Toro, and Gael Garcia Bernal are all reported to have major roles locked down.In a forward to a recent edition of the novel – Scorsese explains his fascination   “How do you tell the story of Christian faith? The difficulty, the crisis, of believing? How do you describe the struggle? … [Shusaku Endo] understood the conflict of faith, the necessity of belief fighting the voice of experience……. Questioning may lead to great loneliness, but if it co-exists with faith – true faith, abiding faith – it can end in the most joyful sense of communion. It’s this painful, paradoxical passage – from certainty to doubt to loneliness to communion – that Endo understands so well, and renders so clearly, carefully and beautifully in Silence.

I hope that the film is made.  Roland Joffe (The Mission) – had been working on a script about the life of St Ignatius but disappointingly put it to one side to make the recently released There be Dragons, about the life of Opus Dei founder St Jose Maria Escriva.  I hope this project sees the light of day – until then Endo’s masterpiece  is available for purchase here on Amazon.  Join me on GoodReads  as I work my way through it!
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