As part of my August challenge, I’ve gone back to painting. It’s been wonderful. Here are the first four works I have created. Apologies for the skewed black borders – some of the pages are a little warped from the watercolors. At this point, I’m primarily trying to get back my sea-legs, so to speak. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to move away from models and into more imaginative, creative territory. For now, I’m happy with the start I’ve made.
August is consecrated to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary. Thus, it is a month in which the Church invites us to peer into the profound and luminous abyss of light at the very center of the Mother of God’s Sophianic life. In celebration of this occasion, I’ve decided to dedicate myself to producing or working on something creative every day for the rest of the month. Today, I have already written one poem and started an art project. The latter is especially exciting for me, as it’s been years since I last produced any real art. Too long, really. Pray for me in this sophiological endeavor! I would recommend the same challenge to any Catholic hoping to redeem this particular time.
In a recent post, I quoted a letter sent by de Marquais, Abbot of St. Martin’s, to Cesar Baronius about humility and trust in the Providence of God whenever our work seems discouraging. The source I used, the Mediatrix Press edition of Lady Amabel Kerr’s biography of Baronius, has been a great read thus far. In the same chapter, I also found this excellent passage from the Annals, presumably also translated by Lady Kerr herself. She takes it from the dedication of the sixth volume of the Annals.
“No man, however distinguished in intellect or excellent in virtue, is sufficient of himself to handle sacred things. This is clearly demonstrated in Scripture by the example of that artificer who, though employed on only the mechanical structure of the place wherein God was to be worshipped, was declared by Moses to be thereby specially united to divine things. ‘The Lord has filled Bezaleel with the Spirit of God,’ said he, ‘with wisdom and understanding and knowledge and learning, and to work in gold, silver and brass, and in engraving stones and in carpenter’s work. Whatever can be devised artificially He hath given his hand.’ Yet Moses adds that even this work, so well done by aid of the Holy Spirit, was not to be used for God until it had been blessed. If then he who handled only the materials intended for the future service of God had to be himself given to God, how much more is expected of him on whom falls the burden of expounding those things which belong to the truth of the Church. Without doubt he should be ever filled with the Spirit of truth, so that he may complete his work standing firm in the truth.” (qtd. in Kerr 156-57)
As someone who hopes to someday write actual theology, I find these words both challenging and profound. I love the idea that a book can be a kind of little Tabernacle. I hope to carry out my own work—academic, creative, and whatever I can throw up on this blog—in just such a spirit.
Too often, it seems that contemporary theologians treat their field as part of the Humanities rather than Divinity. They are overly concerned with political questions, or theories of signification and interpretation, or some such narrow province. On the other hand, some would go too far and forget the other side of the truth that Baronius expounds through his metaphor. The theologian, like Bezaleel, prepares a human work fit for a divine dwelling, but it is indeed a human work. It should speak a human language.
The proper posture, I think, is somewhere between the two. In other words—theologians must remember that their vocation, like all vocations, is theandric. The Sophiological Renaissance led by Michael Martin and the other folks over at Jesus: The Imagination seems to be a good example of that balance applied to actual religious writing. So is the deeply Eucharistic monastic theology of Dom Mark Daniel Kirby. In both of these (very different) cases, the writers achieve the divinity-humanity balance in their theology by hewing close to the sacraments and the sacramental worldview. As Sergius Bulgakov said, “one should imbibe theology from the bottom of the Eucharistic Chalice.”
I like to think that Cardinal Baronius might agree.
Right around January of 2016, Mr. Owen White (formerly?) of The Ochlophobist, issued a challenge to the religious blogosphere asking writers why they adhered to their faiths. The challenge lay in the rules; if memory serves correctly, you could only answer with five or so selections of media by figures who, to the best of your knowledge, were outside that faith. I wrote up my own list, but as I wasn’t blogging at the time, I didn’t publish it anywhere. I just found it again, decided to add an extra two pieces, and thought I’d put it here for anyone who might care.
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
TS. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
W. B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”
Rest your cheek, for a moment, on this drunken cheek.
Let me forget the war and cruelty inside myself.
I hold these silver coins in my hand;
Give me your wine of golden light.
You have opened the seven doors of heaven;
Now lay your hand generously on my tightened heart.
All I have to offer is this illusion, my self.
Give it a nickname at least that is real.
Only you can restore what you have broken;
Help my broken head.
I’m not asking for some sweet pistachio candy,
But your everlasting love.
Fifty times I’ve said,
“Heart, stop hunting and step into this net.”
Rumi, “The War Inside,” trans. Kabir Helminski
Somehow it has all
added up to song—
earth, air, rain and light,
the labor and the heat,
the mortality of the young.
I will go free of other
singing, I will go
into the silence
of my songs, to hear
this song clearly.
Wendell Berry, “A Song Sparrow Singing in the Fall”
“Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes
The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick
In my parish, as in most, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi has been moved from its traditional spot on the Thursday after Trinity to the following Sunday. There are many unfortunate implications of this liturgical change, but today I’d rather focus on what grace I received from the readings and prayers of today’s Ferial Mass.
I’d like to start, however, with a painting, “Transustanziazione,” by Giovanni Gasparro. Only in the work of Salvador Dali do we find a modern artist who captures the mystical dimension of the Eucharist in such an original way. And Gasparro’s piece is far simpler, and therefore more visually striking, than any of Dali’s several Eucharistic paintings.
Three pairs of hands, like the three pairs of wings on the seraphim and cherubim, bear aloft a bleeding host in undifferentiated space. The three sets of hands appear the same—they are, perhaps, the hands of the same priest captured over the lapse of time. This distortion of time and space lends the image a sense of eternity. We are viewing something transcendent. The Eucharist is not just an earthly event. It is also a rite which happens forever in the cosmic liturgy of heaven. And who is the Great High Priest offering that liturgy for us mortals? Who but Christ? In Gasparro’s image, Christ is present as priest and victim.
The three pairs of hands also remind us of the Trinity. When we approach the Eucharist, we truly approach the Triune God. At every Mass, the act of Transubstantiation only happens because of the work of the whole Trinity. Christ offers Himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit, through the hands of His priests and the prayer of His bride, the Church. It is meet and right that we should consider the painting at this point between the Ordinary Form celebrations of Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi.
The painting has a certain sacramentality, in that, like the liturgy, it captures something of the invisible and manifests it to our earthbound senses. Looking at Gasparro’s painting, we have the sense that we are glimpsing something profound, unsettling, and sacred—something ordinarily hidden from us. Do we not hear the words of St. Thomas’s Corpus Christi hymn, Lauda Sion?
Here beneath these signs are hidden,
Priceless things, to sense forbidden,
Signs, not things, are all we see.
Today’s liturgy powerfully brings this quality to mind. As we turn to the First Reading from today’s Mass, we encounter the words of St. Paul:
Brothers and sisters: To this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over the hearts of the children of Israel, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Therefore, since we have this ministry through the mercy shown us, we are not discouraged. And even though our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled for those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that they may not see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus. For God who said, Let light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ.
This, from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians.
The Liturgical Providence of God permits us to hear these words of the Apostle on a day which, in the Old Calendar, was the preeminent feast of the Eucharist as such. All Thursdays are to be read in light of the Eucharist, mystically tied as they are to this holy feast and to Maundy Thursday.
St. Paul is doing many things in this passage. It is an extremely rich vein of mystical insight, and it could yield untold spiritual fruit. But one very clear move that St. Paul makes here is the parallel he draws between our faces and the face of Christ. As the Spirit has removed the veil of sin from our faces in Baptism, so too, He removes the veil from Christ’s priestly face in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the Baptized stand face-to-face with God Almighty. We must grow in the likeness of Christ’s Holy Face—”from glory to glory”—but only by approaching the glory of that face in the Eucharist.
What does this transformation practically look like? The readings give us hints.
The Gospel Acclamation, drawn from St. John, summarizes the commands of the Lord in the proper Gospel. We sing, “I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you.” Then, Christ tells us,
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
Eucharistic community is characterized by peace. Its members govern their actions by deliberate and conscientious love. We are obliged to strive for this peace.
The proper Psalm depicts the spiritual condition of that moral environment, when
Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven.
What, precisely, is the nature of this union of heaven and earth? Here, too, the Psalm furnishes a deeper insight. We sing in the refrain, “The glory of the Lord will dwell in our land.” There are many meanings bound up in this line of Holy Scripture. Three are immediately relevant to our purposes. The passage’s Sophiological meaning is that God’s glory will ultimately interpenetrate, indwell, and crown the redeemed cosmos. The passage’s Mariological meaning is that Christ will give His own divine-human self to the Church, the New Israel, through the Church’s perfect microcosm and icon, Mary, the true Daughter of Zion.
But the passage also has a Eucharistic meaning. There is a reason we are meant to chant this particular line of the Psalter on the Thursday that was (and at some level, still is) Corpus Christi. The Glory of God will dwell in the land by its fruits—bread and wine. Indeed, the Glory of God will so fill the bread and wine that they will cease to be bread and wine. God will pour out his glory upon our offerings until our “cup runneth over.” They may appear all the same to us, but in truth, they will become the Body and Blood of Christ. No part of their original essence will remain. This single act of outpouring and indwelling is God’s privileged path of union with souls and with all creation.
As the great theologian Jean Daniélou writes, “We have already seen the Eucharist as communion, covenant. Now we see it as presence, shekinah.” It is the same presence that animates the entire liturgy of the Ferial Thursday after Trinity and that hides quietly in the simple and sacramental art of Giovanni Gasparro.
Inspired by and borrowing from Artur Rosman’s similar post, I offer you some Pentecostal poetry.
“Little Gidding” IV, by T.S. Eliot
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
“God’s Grandeur,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J.
“Epigrammata Sacra XIII” – The descent of the Holy Spirit – Richard Crashaw
Bear, o bosoms, bear ye what Heaven’s vintage showers,
Sacred clusters pouring from ethereal bowers.
Too happy, surely, ye who drink of wine so good;
It comes into your bosoms a sparkling, cooling flood.
Behold, with nectar’d star, each head is shining, shining;
Around your purpl’d locks a crown of life entwining.
O Spirit of all flesh, to drink who’d be denied,
Since Thou, lest they should falter, mak’st wine a torch to guide?
Throughout the Latin Church, Saturday in the Ascension Octave is kept as the Feast of Our Lady of the Cenacle. On this holy day, we remember the Mother of God keeping vigil with the Apostles in the Upper Room, or “Cenacle.” The place is significant. Here, Christ gathered the Twelve on the night of his betrayal, Maundy Thursday. At that time, He instituted the priesthood and the Eucharist. Later, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will descend upon the congregation and truly constitute the Church as such, confirming its sacramental essence and mission in the world of time.
Mary’s position in this unique place at this unique time is captured in the title, “Our Lady of the Cenacle.” But that name conceals a much deeper mystery. What, precisely, was she doing in the Cenacle? Why was she there? And does her presence, never mentioned in the Bible, nevertheless retain important meaning for us today?
As with any mystery unspoken in Scripture but passed on to us by the Tradition, we can approach it by many paths. One of the wonderful things about the Church is that, in her sacramentality, she recasts everything in the light of Christ and opens all things to a deeper meaning than we ordinarily encounter. So today, I’d like to consider Our Lady of the Cenacle through art. Specifically, iconography. Even more specifically, Armenian illuminated manuscripts.
In the Greek iconographic tradition, Pentecost is usually depicted with an empty seat in the center…the place of Christ the King and Teacher, who has ascended and sent the Holy Spirit in his stead. The icon for the feast of mid-Pentecost dovetails with this custom, as it depicts Jesus the youth instructing the teachers of the Law in an arrangement that approximates that of Pentecost proper. The Russian and Slavic iconographic tradition largely copies this model, with one notable exception. Many Russian iconographers include the Mother of God in what would ordinarily be the empty “Teacher’s Seat.” As one writer puts it, “Mary is therefore shown in the ‘teacher’s seat’ as the best example we have, and the person on earth who most resembled Jesus Christ (both physically, as His mother, and spiritually as His disciple).” Indeed.
The Armenian iconographic tradition differs from both the Greek and Russian streams in important ways, not all of which we can get into here. For our purposes, it is enough for us to observe that the Armenians have a tendency to place the Mother of God at the center of the Pentecostal scene.
Examine, if you will, the illumination at the top of this essay—Figure A.
Mary is, by far, the largest character. The Apostles crowd around her on both sides expectantly. Her hands are lifted in the orans position of prayer. She stands in a red mantle and a dark blue robe that matches the hue of the Holy Spirit alighting above her. Every one of the bird’s tongues of flame move through her nimbus to reach the Apostles, some of whom even raise their own hands as if to reach out and take hold of the mystical fire.
A similar placement and posture is written into the following icon:
Mary is the central pillar of the icon. The Holy Spirit does not just descend, but rests upon her as He sends forth his tongues of flame. Here, too, their colors match. We can see that the Holy Spirit is customarily written in blue for this festal icon.
Blue is an interesting color, one with mystical associations. I won’t attempt a full symbolic analysis here, but it is worth contemplating the range of natural and supernatural meanings which Christianity has invested in this delicate shade. It suffices to say that blue is a sophianic color, calling to mind the wisdom and beauty of God (see the pertinent chapter in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, by the great Russian theologian Father Pavel Florensky). The iconographic tradition is of great help in this subject as well; besides gold, blue is the only other color allowed for the background of icons in the Greek and Slavic canons.
It is also perhaps worthy of note that in Figure D, Mary doesn’t just match the hue of the Spirit. The colors she wears also match the architecture of the Cenacle. She is one with the Cenacle; the Cenacle is hers, and hers alone. The Cenacle is the Church, the Cenacle is every tabernacle in the world, the Cenacle is Heaven, the Cenacle is the New Jerusalem, the Cenacle is the Throne of God, the Cenacle is the Eschaton, the Cenacle is the final consummation of sophianic being brought about by Christ’s gloriously triumphant Incarnation, sacrifice, and Resurrection.
And in all these mystical dimensions of the Cenacle, Our Lady is Queen.
Mary is the woman who bears the Holy Spirit, the living icon of the Church. When we look at Mary, we are to think of the Spirit. The Mother of God always points us to her son, but also to the Holy Spirit, and through both, to the Father. She is never apart from the Holy Spirit. They abide together, and the Cenacle is where her truly Eucharistic and sophianic state of being is manifested for the awe-struck view of the whole Church. She is the consummation of what is accomplished by the Trinity in the Cenacle, the woman who fully cooperates in the salvation of the world, the Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of All Graces. Indeed, do we not read the latter title in the first illumination above? Do we not see it in the slim orange lines of fire that move through her halo to the Apostles below? They only receive the Spirit as it passes through Mary.
Mary does nothing of her own effort. God does all in her, and she freely agrees to accept and work for God’s will. St. Paul can speak of “those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh” (Col. 1:24 DRA). Not so with Mary. In her, the cross’s victory is complete. In her, it has become the Tree of Life, “so that the birds of the air,” such as the blue bird of the icons, “come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matt. 13:32 KJV).
On this feast day, let us remember the manifold graces that Our Lady showers upon us from her throne in the eternal Cenacle. Let us also take heart that, with so powerful an advocate at the heart of the Church, no controversies or troubles can ever overwhelm the Barque of Peter. Finally, let us pray to Our Lady of the Cenacle for the Benedictines of Silverstream on this, their patronal feast.
This week, we are about to enter a truly remarkable liturgical sequence.
Wednesday is Our Lady, Help of Christians, patroness of my parish here in South Carolina.
Thursday is the Ascension (sadly moved to Sunday in my province of Atlanta).
Friday is St. Philip Neri, and then on Saturday comes Our Lady of the Cenacle.
We could extend our reckoning to Sunday, but for now, I think it is appropriate for us to hesitate on the threshold of the Mystical Sabbath. Let us instead examine only these four days and their import.
We begin and end the progression with Mary. First, we see her in her relation to humanity. She is the help of Christians. Then, we see her in relation to God. She receives the Holy Spirit. Taking both feasts together, we see Our Lady participating in God-humanity; she becomes the perfect emblem of Divine Wisdom.
Studying Sophiology has made me appreciate Our Lady of the Cenacle even more. There is a deep connection, I think, between the manifestation of Divine Wisdom in the creation of the Cosmos, at the Baptism of Christ, and at the descent of the Spirit upon Our Lady at Pentecost. They are mutually illuminating events. I wonder if we can find that connection at the level of the propers for each liturgy, a project I may try to engage in before Saturday.
And how appropriate that St. Philip, who experienced his own Pentecost in the catacombs of St. Sebastian, should go forth as a herald for Our Lady of the Cenacle! It is a kind of liturgical proof of the hierarchical principle, that we are led by lower things to higher things. St. Philip received the Holy Spirit into his heart as a ball of fire in the catacombs— under the city of Rome, once a place of persecution, the mythical “Babylon” of Revelation. He guides us to Our Lady as she waits and prays in the Cenacle, the Upper Room in Jerusalem where the sacraments of the Eucharist and Orders were instituted and where the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church in tongues of fire on Pentecost. What a picture of the historical Church in pilgrimage! From the darkness of the Roman catacombs to the heights of the upper room in Zion. We could read an eschatology out of these mystical days.
Nevertheless, this week’s procession is easy to overlook, since its central diamond, the Ascension, has been misplaced by so many bishops. Celebrating the feast on Sunday robs it of its truly Eucharistic meaning, for the Ascension’s traditional place on a Thursday meant that it could only be read through the texts of Maundy Thursday. Ascension Day is to Maundy Thursday as Pentecost is to Easter, the initiator of a new liturgical season and a reminder of the Mystical Priesthood of Christ. All of this is admirably explained by Dom Mark Daniel Kirby OSB in his podcasted homilies and in his blog, Vultus Christi.
The Eucharistic and Priestly meaning of the Ascension matters for the rest of the four-day sequence insofar as the Eucharist represents, sustains, and completes every instantiation of Sophianic being. The Sophianic character of the four days can only be discerned in the light of Christ’s face as He ascends into his cosmic priesthood on Thursday. This would be true even if St. Philip were not there to complete the set. This is, after all, a fairly uniqueE situation. Ever spry, St. Philip moves around the sacred calendar with the bustling rhythms of profane time. But in this auspicious year, so full of historical resonances and providential patterns, let us rejoice in the days that the Lord has made (Psalm 118).
Pater Edmund Waldstein O.Cist. was kind enough to mention my recent post about Julien Green on his superlative blog, Sancrucensis. But what’s more, he built off of my essay in a really wonderful way. In his post, you can find more information on Green (particularly his later years, death, and entombment) as well as a wonderful homily he wrote incorporating elements of Green’s life and spirituality. I highly recommend a view.
The only thing I’ll add is only tangentially related to Green. St. Egid Church, where Green is interred, is also host to one of the most remarkable chapels in existence. The Austrian artist Ernst Fuchs, a Catholic whose work draws upon the best of the Western visionary, symbolist, and esoteric tradition, was commissioned to create a chapel in the crypt. The result is…something. Although I’m a fan of Fuchs generally, I’m not convinced that his was the best approach to sacramental space. And…a clear altar?
It’s a bit too psychedelic for a temple of God, I think. But hey, I’d rather attempt to worship in this overabundance of color and image than, say, a vaguely imposing and tomb-like structure that leaves its visitors depressed. I must emphasize that Fuchs’s art really can be mystical, even sophianic. Perhaps I’ll write a post on it some time soon.
And perhaps I’ll someday have the chance to visit St. Egid Church, make the pilgrimage to pray for Green at his tomb, and see the chapel myself.
In my time at the University of Virginia, I’m grateful to have received an unofficial aesthetic education parallel to (and sometimes part of) what I was learning in class. As part of a series of somewhat nostalgic posts, I’d like to revisit some of these and perhaps leave you with a few recommendations.
Some of this will be review. A great deal will be personal narrative. “Important” here is not an absolute quality, but rather a relative one. These films have been the most important to me over my four years. Moreover, there will be occasional spoilers—though, as with No. 5 and No. 4 on my list, I don’t spoil very much.
Keeping those disclaimers in mind, let’s begin.
15. What We Do in the Shadows
I watched this New Zealand horror comedy with a friend (whom I will call here and throughout by the name “Sherman Pine”). And I’m glad I did. What We Do in the Shadows is one of the best depictions of male friendship I have ever seen. Not only is the film by turns hilarious and macabre, it also manages to evoke the unique social pressures facing (post)modern man. It deals with issues of difference, acceptance, competition, and more.
And for anyone with a taste for blood – or at the very least, a good vampire story – the number of playfully subverted classic genre tropes in the film will certainly please.
14. Doctor Strange
Before I came to UVA, I wasn’t a fan of the Marvel universe. While I wasn’t exactly a DC partisan, I never paid much attention to the Avengers. I disliked the only Iron Man movie I had seen, and I had never bothered to watch any of the Thor or Captain America films.
But then came Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Captain America: Civil War. Those three films and the conversations with friends that they engendered drastically changed my perspective on Marvel.
None of those, however, reached the artistic or philosophical heights of Doctor Strange. The beautifully kaleidoscopic special effects never drown out the excellent performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. And the plot contains a number of religious themes. It’s one of the few superhero movies I’ve seen that embraces a quasi-Christian worldview (the climax involves a kind of harrowing of hell).
In short, I guess I can now say that I’m a fan of the Marvel universe. Doctor Strange is just the best reason why.
Wrenching, problematic, and beautiful, Silence is the only Martin Scorsese film on this list. I saw it with friends from one of my oratorical societies. We all went in with different perspectives, and came out with different reactions. Mostly, I just felt numb. I couldn’t find any words at all, but like Job, felt it necessary to “lay mine hand upon my mouth” in awe (Job 40:4 KJV).
I could probably write at length about the various theological issues, cultural questions, and cinematic gems that the film poses. I won’t. I’ll merely say that, while I found it emotionally crushing, I appreciate that art doesn’t abide by the rules we try to set it. Good Christian art – even Sophianic art – never loses sight of the essential brokenness of our fallen world. If anything, perhaps the great take-away from Silence is something like the advice I was once given by a very holy priest: “Never despair of the mercy of God.”
I’ll add briefly that, as someone who wants to focus on early modern Catholicism, I found the film a helpful occasion to raise awareness about the history of Christian persecution in Japan. The reconstructed world of 17th century Japan is sumptuously simple. Every aesthetic note is perfectly put. It will almost certainly be remembered as Scorsese’s masterpiece.
12. Mulholland Drive
We move from Silence to “Silencio.”
Last Fall, I decided to watch Twin Peaks. That process entailed a general inquiry into the works of David Lynch, whom I had long admired. I told Sherman Pine, who shares my appreciation of Lynch, that I had yet to see the director’s famous neo-noir Mulholland Drive, and he was kind enough to watch it with me.
I still don’t understand this movie. I won’t pretend to. But boy, is it a ride.
I’ll add that Lynch really smartly contrasts different musical styles, which mirrors the doubling in the plot (but I won’t spoil those details). I know of no other director who is so committed to staged performance as a portrayal of themes. Particularly as they relate to the underlying tensions of sex and gender present in much of his work.
11. Days of Heaven
My first Terrence Malick movie, but not the only one on this list. Watching Days of Heaven was like stepping into an Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth painting. Like a few other films – say, August: Osage County or Nebraska – Days of Heaven stands as one of the quietly towering cinematic monuments of Midwestern life.
I also happened to watch the film with a friend (the aforementioned Sherman Pine) wile I was enrolled in an Anthropology class called “Language and Cinema,” which meant that I was particularly attuned to the way Malick crafts his story through sound. No other film that I know of uses such a wide range of realistic sounds so artfully. You can’t hear all the dialogue, and what you can hear, you can’t always understand. The voice-over narration is spoken by a child in the working-class accent of 1916 Chicago.
Of course, being a Malick film, the visuals are also gorgeous. A swarm of locusts is an inherently mythic phenomenon, but I think that only Malick could make them as beautiful as the sunlight they block and the fields they devour.
10. Do the Right Thing
Because I was in that “Language and Cinema” class, I had the opportunity to watch several films I had never seen before. A few worth mentioning include Zoot Suit, the 1939 edition of Stagecoach, and Smoke Signals. Of all of the films we watched, one that really stood out to me as an exceptional piece of art was Spike Lee’s famous 1989 movie, Do the Right Thing.
The script offers a remarkable variety of linguistic turns that make it a rich field of social analysis. The film also impressed me as a bitingly relevant commentary on racism and policing. As someone with no prior awareness of the issues surrounding police brutality in 1980’s New York City, the movie made me want to learn more about a dark and overlooked chapter of our history. Given the recent spate of police brutality incidents over the last few years, it seems to me that more people should return to this film, a movie that carefully treads the line between the two social values on Radio Raheem’s fists: love and hate.
Becket is not the greatest Catholic film ever made, but it comes close. Gorgeously fabricated costumes, historically-conscious sets, a richly Romanesque liturgical sensibility, copious use of Gregorian Chant, and an excommunication scene that thrills the cockles of every cold Traditionalist heart—what’s there not to love?
Beyond these largely aesthetic factors, Becket has two unique strengths. First, the movie lacks any of the problematic theology or complicated nuances that has marked more artistically impressive Catholic films (such as Silence and Calvary). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with art engaging in these questions, but occasionally a more affirming film can be helpful. Becket, like A Man for All Seasons, manages to unite faithfulness to the Church’s teachings with genuine artistry. The titular bishop often defends “the Honor of God” against a rapacious monarch. And that brings us to the movie’s second great strength: its depiction of a friendship gone awry. This is a theme that isn’t treated as often as it should be in movies.
Of course, I may be mistaking my own reading of the film and its objective strengths. I first saw Becket when I was in a similar situation. A friend had quickly and completely become an enemy, and I could relate to St. Thomas’s exasperated struggle against a corrupt king.
And on top of that, it’s about St. Thomas Becket, who is one of the coolest British saints.
8. The Witch
If you know me personally, you know that I adore The Witch (aka The VVitch). It may well be one of the finest horror movies ever made. It features all the tropes of early modern witch lore, a soundtrack that evokes the terrors of the Puritan frontier, and dialogue in 17th century dialect (my jam). Its understated visual style allows the actors’ performances to shine through. And the goat! The goat! Just look at it!
This film rekindled my interest in the tradition of horror in New England, which I’ve blogged about before in relation to Lovecraft. It was also the first horror movie I had ever seen in a cinema. The Witch also established A24 in my mind as one of the leaders of the new horror, a genre trend that I hope it continues with the upcoming It Comes at Night.
I consider The Witch to be the greatest Protestant film ever made. Yes, the Satanic Temple really liked it. Yes, A24 consciously hyped the film’s satanic themes as part of its publicity efforts. Fine. But the movie’s horror works by letting us into the world of Puritan New England, a world where the devil is real, witches kill babies, and the livestock aren’t always what they seem. And we are meant to sympathize with these people. They’re not the dupes of McCarthyesque hysteria. They’re the victims of supernatural evil.
I also read The Witch as a cinematic meditation on original sin in its Calvinist interpretation. Everything in the movie happens because of the father’s pride. He’s unwilling to repent and submit to the colonial community, and as a result, the whole family is expelled into the wilderness. The subsequent deterioration and damnation mirrors our own condition under Adam.
Also, if you like Goya’s Black Paintings, you’ll really like The Witch.
7. Herz aus Glas
I saw Herz aus Glas (Heart of Glass) while on a Nietzsche kick in my second year. It messed with my head and made me want to read obscure Continental writers. I’ve always seen it as somehow quintessentially German. At the very least, Herz aus Glas introduced me to the remarkable oeuvre of Werner Herzog, who is my favorite European nihilist director. Not quite as grim as Béla Tarr, not quite as operatically depraved as Lars von Trier.
The film itself tells the story of a glass-producing village in Bavaria that descends into madness after the death of its chief glassblower. A highland prophet delivers cryptic messages throughout. The conclusion comes out of nowhere. At the end of the day, it’s probably a commentary on the German experience of capitalism and fascism, but who knows? Don’t question it.
6. Curse of the Golden Flower
I first saw Curse of the Golden Flower with fourth-year friends when I was a lowly first-year. For me, it will always be a symbol of the similarly golden days between Spring finals and graduation.
The film struck me then as one of the most visually striking movies I had ever seen. The highly stylized recreation of Tang Dynasty China probably speaks to that part of me that also takes a guilty pleasure in the orientalist paintings of Gérôme and Delacroix. Each shot is saturated with a carefully chosen array of colors. The costumes and set design work together to fashion a stunning aesthetic experience. Think Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, but with more swords and cloth-of-gold.
Everyone to whom I have showed it since has agreed with my own assessment. The action thrills, and all the actors put in excellent performances. I’d also highly recommend Curse of the Golden Flower to fans of Game of Thrones. The palace intrigue that makes up the bulk of the plot resonates with much of what goes on in Westeros.
5. The Great Beauty
When I started composing this list, The Great Beauty was down several places. But the longer I’ve thought about it, the higher I’ve ranked this film by Paolo Sorrentino. Readers of this blog will know that I kinda have a thing for his recent HBO limited series, The Young Pope. That show prompted me to look at Sorrentino’s cinematic work. The Great Beauty was the first of his movies that I watched. I’ve had the chance to watch it twice, and I may go back for round three in the next few weeks.
The film depicts the life of Jep Gambardella, a fictional Italian author who moves through the boozy and hedonistic world of the Roman intelligentsia. We see his interactions with other writers, strippers, a floundering performance artist, the wreck of the Costa Concordia, and more. He searches for the titular “grande bellezza,” only to find it after encountering love, suffering, and simplicity.
There isn’t much plot, but there is a whole lot of character development. Ensconced in a party lifestyle, Jep can’t produce any more books; he feels stuck. When he receives word that his first love has died, he goes through a period of intense introspection. As he looks back upon his life, he realizes that he’s lost any meaningful sense of joy. He’s caught in a malaise of memory. Only the wise words of a Mother Theresa-like nun whom everyone refers to as “the Saint” unlocks his situation.
She asks, “Do you know why I only eat roots?” Jep replies that he doesn’t know. She turns back, and without even a smile, says to him, “Because roots are important.” The terse, spiritual one-liners of The Great Beauty are typical Sorrentino fare. Similar lines appear throughout The Young Pope.
I first saw the film in February. I’ve been ruminating on it ever since. It has stayed with me and fermented in my soul like few other films. I can’t help but relate to the protagonist—and not just because we share a similar sleep cycle. Jep Gambardella, played masterfully by Tony Servillo, strikes me as a character who could relate to the strange feelings of nostalgia and loss that I’ve had in the Spring of my fourth year. So much so, that along with the next two films, I consider it one of the triad of movies that has defined my final year at the University.
Also, the music in this film is totally gorgeous, and has given me a renewed appreciation of the Holy Minimalists. The soundtrack features both of the songs I described in a recent post on the Light of Tabor and Lent.
So go see it, because it really is too great a beauty to pass up.
4. The Mission
Although I had heard of The Mission years ago, I only became really determined to watch it as the result of a class I took last fall, “Reformation Europe.” I’m glad I did. It also had a profound impact on me. I don’t think I know of a Catholic film that more perfectly depicts the difficult realities of balancing missionary work and the demands of Christian peace. The tension between the Jesuits played by Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons is only undone through the reconciliation implicit in the climactic scene. It is the Eucharist, and the Eucharist alone, which can effect true peace – especially in the face of martyrdom.
A few ancillary personal notes. First, as an aspiring early modernist, I found that the film disposed me to take a much deeper interest in colonial South America. It also made me take a much more serious look into Christian pacifism. The best art should do that. It captures the imagination and lead us on from the beautiful to the true or the good. Secondly, “Gabriel’s Oboe” is also, for my money, the most uplifting music from any of the films I have listed in this post. Finally, it confirmed Jeremy Irons in my mind as the Most Catholic Non-Catholic currently acting in Hollywood (see Brideshead Revisited, The Borgias).
3. The Tree of Life
For years, friends told me that I had to watch The Tree of Life. That it was an incredible piece of art. That it could never be adequately described. That it might just induce a religious experience.
Having watched it recently, I concur. The film is too vast to try and capture in any depth here. I’ll simply say that it is the most sophianic piece of cinema I have ever seen, and that if I have any time in the future, I may try to analyze it from a sophiological perspective. But not without one more viewing.
2. Into Great Silence
For a while, I made it a practice to watch Into Great Silence at least once per semester. I believe I first saw the film in the Fall of my First Year, and in that sense, it was my first real introduction to monastic spirituality. The simplicity and manifest holiness of the Carthusians in the movie captured my imagination. Their silence spoke to me.
Nothing happens. Insofar as there is a narrative—and I must emphasize, there really isn’t one—it’s the first year in the monastery of a newly-professed novice. But we don’t focus on him. Instead, we watch many of the monks as they go about life. We are brought into the rhythms of their own silence, the particular ways they fill it with prayer and work. When the monks do speak, they often drop deep little lines. The only interview in the documentary is conducted with an ancient, blind monk. At one point, he says,
The past, the present, these are human. In God there is no past. Solely the present prevails. And when God sees us, He always sees our entire life. And because He is an infinitely good being, He eternally seeks our well-being. Therefore there is no cause for worry in any of the things which happen to us.
These words are good theology, spoken by a saint, given for our practical sanctification. Or consider an even better, briefer quip spoken by a monk at recreation:
The symbols are not to be questioned—we are.
Words to live by.
If you are Catholic, the hauntingly beautiful scene that depicts the Carthusian night office will make you want to go to adoration at midnight. If you are not religious, the film will make you take the ascetic life more seriously. And if you are pondering the Catholic life, I can’t think of a better cinematic introduction to the Church’s spirituality.
Well, I suppose there’s Bishop Barron’s Catholicism series. But that’s a show, not a film.
Without a doubt, this film has defined my time at UVA. I discovered Baraka by accident, and it stirred something in me that has never quite settled.
One part nature documentary, one part travelogue, one part blistering social criticism, Baraka can be summed up in one word: transcendent. Everything in the film points towards what is beyond it, towards what it dare not express in words. There is no dialogue. The central theme is that ritual and nature connect mankind with the mystery of his existence, and it proceeds to show how the way we break, deform, and reconstruct ritual in modernity has led to untold suffering. The film suggests that a return to the ancient wisdom of religion can restore the meaning we have lost in the 20th century.
Whether you buy into that traditionalist interpretation—or its postmodernist, ecofeminist, anti-colonialist, or anti-capitalist variants—the film will stun you. Director Ron Fricke cut his teeth as director of photography for Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and director of Chronos (1985), the film’s spiritual antecedents. He would later go on to direct a sequel to Baraka, another beautiful film called Samsara (the featured image at the top of this article is a still from that movie). While all are worth seeing, Baraka is the best of the lot. It has the most coherent spiritual vision, the best music, and the most striking visuals.
I encountered Baraka my third year, at a time in my life when I was under tremendous personal stress, as I alluded to in my discussion of Becket. Maybe that slight desperation opened me to a film of Baraka‘s sensibilities. I don’t know. But I don’t think I watched a film while at UVA that more profoundly shaped my worldview and aesthetic. I’d say that everyone who studies or practices religion should see it, but that would be a lie. Everyone should see it—period.