Wednesday, August 13, 2014

For Bill O'Reilly and the Fisher King

It boils down to “say what you mean, mean what you say,” doesn’t it? On O’Reilly’s show, the Factor, upon delivering the “news” of Robin William’s death, O’Reilly prefaced his remarks by saying “We won’t speculate at this point upon the circumstances of William’s death.” But not five minutes later, O’Reilly couldn’t help himself and muttered “When I first heard of it I immediately thought ‘overdose or suicide.’” The spin didn’t stop there, Bill. But I’m not here to bury O’Reilly, I like him and think he’s an overall fair and square celebrity talking head. I’m here to pray and praise the Fisher King. (I knew if I titled this “For the Fisher King,” I’d lose any readership from the start.)
“The Fisher King” was one of Robin William’s finest films, if also one of the strangest.

Directed by the eccentric American/British artist, Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame), it tells of the clash of cultures in the late last century represented by the downfall of two high achieving careerists. The primary character, played by the equally genius Jeff Bridges is a shock jock in the mold of Howard Stern who inadvertently compels one of his legion of unstable listeners to “act out” his rage against the machine by shooting up yuppies in a fashionable Manhattan restaurant. One of those killed is the wife of the loving literature college professor, played by Robin Williams. When the media makes the connection, the raging shock jock’s character and career, which was about to go national on TV, careens into despair and degradation. Hitting rock bottom, the shock jock goes to the harbor intending to commit suicide, whereupon he’s set upon by a couple of young, rich punks whose entertainment is setting fire to vagrant homeless people. But Bridges is saved by a band of homeless, crazed Merry Men warriors led by Parry, Robin William’s alter ego from post-traumatic event syndrome mode after his wife’s senseless murder.
Suddenly Bridges is confronted,  face-down in the big muddy so to speak, with the sort of people he really hated more than the pretentious yuppies he mocked on his show. He is nursed and comforted by the obviously deranged Parry, learns of Parry’s heroic quest to find the Fisher King of medieval yore. The Fisher King’s destiny is to recover the Holy Grail used at the Last Supper, and Parry’s convinced it is housed in a modern castle on Fifth Avenue. I have to leave the rest of this most redemptive, if quirky and certainly emotionally and intellectually compelling story for you to rent or view for yourself.
Bill O’Reilly’s first thought of William’s death, “overdose or suicide,” was not my first thought. My first thought, no less or more important than O’Reilly’s, was “As sad as this is, the news cycle covering Williams will displace that which ever so briefly and finally got the world’s attention on the genocide of Christians and other non-Muslims in Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria when the media was forced to look upon thousands of refugees on a barren, rocky plateau in Kurdistan called Mount Sinjar. Who will mourn with the fathers holding the bodies of their children beheaded by the corporate evil that tramples thousands of souls into desert ditches?
The intersection at which these thoughts collide is that alone we cannot exorcize all the demonic forces that affect us as individuals, communities, societies, nations and as the only species endowed with the foreknowledge of our own impending deaths. We have to cope with that reality, if only at the moment it is imminent and unavoidable.
The loss of life of most people, none of them sinless if you are of a Judeo-Christian persuasion,  is not an occasion for rejoicing or mirth, glee or self-righteous gloating (“At least I’m not like that guy, Williams, roasting in hell in Dante’s suicide suite.”) Neither is it an occasion for excruciating, relentless despair that wails “Woe is me, all is lost.” What folks like O’Reilly and Williams and countless other celebrities of good will remind us is that redemption will always remain an option for any of us who have fallen. And who hasn’t fallen? Redemption is not a state of being for religious believers only. Redemption befalls both the beggar about to take his last breath in a gutter in Calcutta, and Blessed Mother Theresa who stopped and realized all she could do for the beggar was to be with him in that last moment. And then our souls move on, hopefully in a more resolved and purposeful direction to “make someone happy, make just one someone happy.”
The poet Emerson’s famed homily, “to know that one person has breathed easier because you lived” is only one of hundreds of such truthful admonitions. But the one I like is “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know!” This is what I know- the quest for whatever amounts to each of our Holy Grails cannot and will not ever be a journey of solitude or individual perseverance. The cup of living life must be shared in order that its destiny is fulfilled. Even if Stephen Hawking, whose story and life is a testament to perseverance through monumental adversity, goes to his grave without having “found” his grail of the unified field theory in physics; even if the grail of a lasting and true peace in the Holy Land and all over the globe remains ever at bay, even if you give up hope, love, prayers and support for both your beloved and your “enemies” because  you alone despair that grail is unattainable,  remember that Robin Williams, whether as the deranged errant knight Parry, or Mrs. Doubtfire, as the hapless banker in “The Best of Times” or the simple standup comedian whose picture is next to the term ROTFLMAO in the modern lexicon, lived life as fully as he could, and gave much more value to humanity than politicians, church folk, and certainly merchants of death like ISIS and other evil forces masquerading as true believers and God’s chosen people. Williams said what he meant, meant what he said. You can quote me on that.

Friday, August 08, 2014

"God IS Not Dead." "Chant is NOT dead" either.

Over at MSF I've reported that our parish quietly heard its first EF (Low) Mass via a funeral request. That was effected by a former vicar who's now the pastor of a parish in a neighboring town who offers the EF every Thursday evening. I went to join a friend in the loft for the chanted hymns for the second time last evening. I'll revist how this figures into the article in a while. After returning from Mass and having dinner, we decided to "rent" a movie from UVerse and this week's releases included "Divergent" and "God is Not Dead." Having tried to view the first "Hunger Games" installment years ago, I realize I don't really do dystopia in this era. Once you've survived "Blade Runner" and "Twelve Monkeys" you've pretty much seen the best of that genre of film making. But the other night's choice, "God is Not Dead," is clearly from the "faith-based" production school that is slowly upping its game. Earlier this summer we took in a film about a young Christian teen breaking away from the plans her Contemporary Christian Music star father had laid out for her, and that film was, predictably, so two dimensional it almost qualified for a Flat Earth Society award. So, watching another film of that genre is a bit of a gamble, not so much with budget, but with time. I'm happy to report that "God is Not Dead," though certainly flawed here and there, is a very worthwhile endeavor. It's not "The Passion" or "Babette's Feast" but it had just as much content and interest as did the blockbuster "Noah." Set in a bucolic elite college, it weaves the stories of a young Christian student at the beginning of semester having to decide to enroll in a philosophy course so as not to get off-track with his accumulation of credits for graduation. He's warned by a fellow student that this particular course is instructed by a professor somewhere to the right of Nero and will likely become Christian fodder with the negative grade as the bow on the top. The Christian commits to sticking it out. At the first class the professor (Kevin Sorbo, a former TV "Hercules") somewhat startles his 80 students by demanding they expedite the process of acquiring the wisdom of Nietzche and Hume et al by writing a simple contract stating "God is dead" and signing it. Anyone unwilling to do so, he warns, will be the object of some ugly academic sausage making. Well, you can figure the rest. The Christian kid cannot and will not betray his convictions, and the professor lays out for him the consequences. Woven into the fabric of the story line are characters like the student's Christian girl-friend who abandons him because his decision contradicts her "plans" for both of them, a student from China fascinated with his first encounter with the conflict of faith at odds with reason, a Muslim student who struggles with her father's strict adherence to orthodox Islam, and the professor's live-in girl friend, who is a repressed Christian resigned to leaving her faith at the front door. Long story short, the student's exegetical response to the professor's suppression is compelling stuff, but not stiffly delivered or didactic at all. As the Cafe is about both chant and life, I offer these reflections: 1. We are dismissed from each Mass with the admonition to "serve" God in the interim between that moment and the next we gather for Mass; 2. If there was a movie titled "Chant is Not Dead," how would that story line best be told? Yesterday before leaving the office, I scoured the MS website for pre-conciliar daily Missals without finding a usable source to prepare for the EF Mass. But before leaving I also searched my library and found a 1951 St. Joseph's Missal. I felt so "Eureka!" and stuck it in my bag with the GS and PBC. As I said over at MSF, most of my EF experiences have been of the Missa Solemnis or Requiem rites. So, last evening, going through the Low Mass with the old Missal I realized the experience was yet another unveiling to my almost child-like visceral response to each EF Mass I hear and sing. I am God's child, I am learning the faith of all time in a manner not unlike children in the First Grade with "My Little Red Book" of stories ("See Jane run. See Spot run after Jane.") To wrap up this little soliloquy- from reflecting upon both "events" last night it occurs to me that we all could probably risk a lot more in the public square to witness to Christ, His Gospel and Kingship over our lives. That shouldn't be news to any readers here, nor am I suggesting any deficiencies in doing so among us. But yesterday's gospel in the EF (from Matthew, I think) mentions that if we're more concerned about our "rainment," we need to consider the lilies, not even Solomon in all his glory was so adorned." And as regards "Chant is Not Dead," I'm mulling over (I'm an idea guy, and a bit of an anarchist) about how we locally could do things like "chant flash mobs?" Maybe at the next season of the symphony in the theatre during admission. Maybe at the St. Paddy's Parade. Or like a few of us did at Indy before dinner at Buca de Beppo's (fabulous) restaurant, chanting the blessing before the meal. Pope Saint John Paul II almost hammered this scripture into the collective catholic conscience in so many addresses- "Be not afraid." In these troubled times perhaps we should amplify that by capitalizing the "e" as well, BE not afraid. It is an awesome joy to chant our praise and prayer to God. We should share it not only in our parishes but, just maybe, in our daily lives....somehow.