Witness

Frank Gibbons

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

This is the first time I've blogged in several years. I'm trying to see why my comments won't work.

Saturday, August 31, 2002

I am currently reading Ulysses. I read it in 1977 for an Irish Literature course and I'm finding it a much easier read this time around. In fact, I've read whole sections as if they were the latest page-turner. The book is often hilarious and it is always deeply compasionate. Ulysses is not that daunting to read if you give yourself over to it. In between Ulysses I've been reading a lot of poets -- Williams, Pound, Stevens, Yeats, Gary Synder, Charles Olson, Shakespeare's Sonnets, etc. Now, some of this stuff is tough to read! After Pound's first few Cantos, my only reaction is, "Say what, Bro?" I had to read Steven's Auroras of Autumn (it's rather long) out loud several times in order to get a hold on what he's trying to say. Charles Olson's Maximus Poems are like reading trigonometry. I had to break down Maximus' first letter line by line, making annotations in the margins, just to begin to understand what's going on. So when I say that Ulysses is accesible, I'm not claiming to possess an advanced intellect. I really think that the twenty-five years of reading and experiences I have had since the first time I read it make the second time around so much easier.

Monday, August 12, 2002

Black Robe

Black Robe is a very moving film about the clash of two radically different cultures. The young Jesuit priest, Father LaForgue, although very rigid in his belief system, sincerely wants to help the Native Americans by bringing them the Truth. But his message of paradise has no meaning for the Alogonquins, Hurons, and other tribes that he comes into contact with. They cannot understand why he has no woman. They fear him as a demon because he reads from books and makes strange signs (of the cross). He, in turn, believes they are living in darkness and must be saved. He is fearful of the vast forests where the devil reigns. There is a great deal of complexity in the character of Chomina, the Algonquin leader who fears the Black Robe but who feels honor bound to assist him. Father LaForgue is a tragic figure, so lonely and confused in the vast expanses of 'New France'. Why is he here, so far from his mother's comfortable drawing rooms? What does he hope to accomplish? The film is beautifully shot on location. A warning to the faint-hearted: there are some gruesome scenes in the film. Black Robe is a moving, balanced film with a profound spirituality. Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies) directs and the screen play is by Brian Moore who wrote the novel. I believe Moore researched original copies of the Jesuit Relations in preparation for writing the novel.

Sunday, August 11, 2002

Wallace Stevens

Yesterday, I posted the following document concerning Wallace Stevens' alleged deathbed conversion on All But Dissertation's blogspot.
For those of you who are not familiar with Stevens, he was one of the great poets of the 20th century. He actually made his living as a vice-president of the Hartford Insurance Company. Years ago, in a prayer meeting(!), a friend of mine who teaches at Providence College shared the story of Stevens' deathbed conversion. Anyway, before I shared this anecdote with The Lady of Shallot, I did a look up on the Web to see if I could find any corroboration. Here is what I found:

A letter from Father Arthur Hanley to Professor Janet McCann, dated July 24, 1977, with line breaks, punctuation, spelling, etc. exactly as in the typescript:

Dear Janet:

I- The First time he came to the hospital, he expressed
a certain emptiness in his life.
His stay then was two weeks.


Two weeks later, he was in, and he asked the sister to send for me.
We sat and talked a long time.
During his visit this time, I saw him 9 or 10 times.
He was fascinated by the life of Pope Pius X,.
He spoke about a poem for this pope whose family name
was Sartori--- ( Meaning tailor)
At least 3 times, he talked about getting into the fold--
meaning the Catholic Church.
The doctrine of hell was an objection which we later
got thru that alright.


He often remarked about the peace and tranquility that
he experienced in going into a Catholic Church and
spending some time. He spoke about St. Patrick's Cathedral
in N.Y..
I can't give you the date of his baptism.
I think it might be recorded at the hospital.
He said he had never been baptized.
He was baptized absolutely.


Wallace and his wife had not been on speaking terms for
several years.
So we thought it better not to tell her.
She might cause a scene in the hospital.


Archbishop at the time told me not to make his (Wallace's)
conversion public, but the sister and the nurses on the
floor were all aware of it and were praying for him.


At the time--I did get a copy of his poems and also
a record that he did of some of his poems.
We talked about some of the poems.
I quoted some of the lines of one of them and he was
pleased.
He said if he got well, we would talk a lot more and
if not--he would see me in heaven.


That's about all I can give you now. [Signed] God's Blessing
Father Hanley


Before this Stevens believed that poetry or writing was the "Supreme Fiction" that sort of served as his religion; for him, it was the thing that could bring order and sense to one's life. Check out Stevens reading his famous poem The Idea of Order at Key West.

Saturday, August 10, 2002

A Novel of Restoration Intrigue

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears is a wonderful book that will please readers who love mysteries, historical fiction, or novels that are chock full of erudition. Set in England during the Restoration, the first 100 pages are somewhat pedestrian as the first (and most balanced) of the 4 narrators sets the stage for the wilder musings of the latter 3 narrators. I immediately thought of the Japanese film Roshomon when I read this book as four different narrators describe the same events from different perspectives. One is coy, one is mad, one is evil, and the last is weak and tragic. Together, they piece together a story of betrayal, deceit, sacrifice, and cruelty. Students of religion will not only enjoy the wranglings between the Catholic Church and Church of England, but also the descriptions of the Messianic sects that were appearing at that time (one can recognize elements of 20th century renewal movements in the description of these sects). I found this book in the 'Mystery' section of the bookstore. If you're looking for hard-boiled detective fiction, this isn't it. If you're looking for an erudite and intriguing story, I heartily recommend this book.

Friday, August 02, 2002

M. Night Shyamalan's Signs

I just returned form seeing M. Night Shyamalan's Signs. I was somewhat disappointed in the film because I don't think all of the scenes work dramatically. I also found the pacing to be uneven and perhaps too slow. It's not that I'm against slowness in a movie -- Hichcock's Vertigo is my favorite film and it moves like creeping paralysis. But every scene in Vertigo is an enchantment that slowly seduces us until we become transfixed by Hichkock's tapestry just as Scotty (James Stewart) becomes increasingly obsessed with Madeline (Kim Novack). The pacing is absolutely perfect. Signs is about Graham Hess, an Episopalian mimister who has lost his faith due to the tragic death of his wife. He has quit the ministry and is raising two small children on a rather large farm. His brother Merrill, a washed out former minor leaguer, lives with him on the homestead. Seems like Merrill could hit the long ball but just struck out too many times 'swinging away'. Huge perfectly formed shapes inexplicably appear in the in the spacious corn fields. Eventually everybody knows they're the work of aliens. The envitable encounter between the aliens and the Hess family ensues; it's not spoiling anything by saying that Graham Hess rediscovers faith after his family's clash with the extra-terrestials. But the question is: faith in what? It's true that we see Hess donning his clerical suit at the end. But where's that cross whose absence was so clearly underscored at the film's beginning? Shouldn't the 'sign' of Hess' loss of faith be restored when he regains his faith? Or is it not there because Hess has embraced a faith with a more diffuse spitiuality? Here's what Shyamalan himself says about his perspective on faith and religion:

Shyamalan says he doesn't consider himself "religious." He was born in India but raised in the affluent Penn Valley suburb of Philadelphia. Shyamalan went to Catholic school for 10 years, so he had the dual influence of his parents' Hindu background along with what he learned in school. Ultimately, he considers himself a mystic who's interested in spirituality but not organized religion.

A man of faith

"Faith is something very different than religion for me," Shyamalan says. "Religion is some group saying their particular version of God is the right version, and that's hard for me to accept. The world has become such a smaller place. It makes it hard for me to believe that the guy in Nepal and the little boy in Africa and the old man in Maine, all three of them with different versions of God, and yet maybe none of them are right. I just can't believe that. There has to be some unifying thing."

The fact that Shyamlan celebrates an open view of faith doesn't bother me one bit. This aspect of the film doesn't affect its artistic strengths or weaknesses. But I think that Shyamalan has documented a sea-change in Graham Hess' former expression of faith.

Monday, July 29, 2002

Two From Michael D. O'Brien's Children of the Last Days Series

Can it happen here? Can a totalitarian state run by liberals, feminists, and new-agers take hold in North America? According to Nathaniel Delaney, the protaganist of "Plague Journal", it already has and if you don't conform to the new orthodoxies, you're quite expendable. While "Plague Journal" is a paranoid Christian polemic, it is redeemed by the hero's realization that anger, hatred, and solipsism have no place in a true Christian's response to evil. "Plague Journal" is the story of a man who loses everything but who re-discovers his faith in the depth of his sufferings. O'Brien is a skilled writer and an astute thinker. Despite the polemics, this is an amazing book.

Impressed with Plague Journal , I was predisposed to treat O'Brien's The Eclipse of the Sun sympathetically. However, this novel is a mess structurally. It meanders all over the place in totally unnecessary side trips. The dialogue is right out of the "Hardy Boys", often delivered by cartoonish characters. O'Brien doesn't seem to have put too much effort into revising and editing this very long novel. As a result, it lacks the tightness and coherence that "Plague Journal" demonstrated. Moreover, one got the sense from "Plague Journal" that O'Brien was writing out of his own personal pain (as the provider for six children). This gave the book a genuine feel that is lacking in "The Eclipse of the Sun". Look, the 'good guys' have to write as competently as the 'bad guys'. Just because O'Brien is on the right side doesn't by default make this a good book. When we critique a novel, we have to weigh the merits of the writing, no matter how much we agree with its ideas.

An Underrated Film

"King of Kings", directed by Nicholas Ray ("Rebel Without a Cause"), is an underrated film that is marked by some dazzling cinematic moments (Pompey's desecration of the Temple, the death of Herod, and an extended Sermon on the Mount). Miklos Rozsa ("Ben Hur") is responsible for the moving score and Orson Welles provides some tasteful narration at the film's beginning. Jeffery Hunter delivers an adequate portrayal of Jesus although the cynical critics at the time savaged his performance. Robert Ryan and Siobhan McKenna are too old to play John the Baptist and Mary respectively and Royal Dano is ridiculously miscast as Peter. However, film buffs will delight to see a young (and thin) Rip Torn as Judas Iscariot and Harry Guardino as Barabbas. Fans of Nicholas Ray should see this film as should students of epic cinema. As a portrayal of Jesus' life and mission, "King of Kings" falls far short of "Jesus of Nazareth". However, "King of Kings" was made for the large screen and I think that lovers of the cinema will appreciate its strengths and overlook its faults.

Saturday, July 27, 2002

Bigotry and propaganda from rich Hollywood thought police.

The Contender is so offensive and tendentious that it can be considered neither entertainment or art. Even Gary Oldman complained bitterly about the lack of balance that marked the Contender. It is a bigoted anti-religious screed. Early on when Senator Laine Hanson's six-year-old son mentions that the 'baby Jesus' created 'top-spin', Hanson's father is outraged. Apparently the kid heard this from his private school teacher. Ex-Governor Hanson mentions that he spent his career trying to stop this 'nonsense' in the public schools. Later on, our heroine Hanson announces that though she is an 'atheist', she 'worships' in the 'church of Democracy'. As usual, the bad guy (Gary Oldman as Sheldon Runyon) not only looks like a bad-haired geek, but he's pro-life as well. He's a red meat eater (several scenes pointedly depict him cutting and eating steak) while our sensitive pro-choice (it's a 'fetus') heroine is a vegetarian. He's unkempt; she dresses smart. The message is clear -- only clods are pro-life while cool, sensitive people are for abortion rights. The clearest analogy to The Contender in real life was the Clarence Thomas hearings. In Thomas' case, he was smeared with charges of sexual impropriety. But that's o.k. -- he was a conservative. I always enjoy Gary Oldman and he turns in another engagingly eccentric performance. Otherwise, this film is a disaster. All movie lovers whether they are liberal or conservative should protest this type of heavy-handed propaganda in commercial films.

Monday, July 22, 2002

Some words of advice from the Immortal Bard

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.


The Merchant of Venice Act IV. i. 182-205

Saturday, July 20, 2002

The next time you feel like poking fun at one of those radio evangelists....

A good friend of mine, who I have known for eighteen years, had a radical conversion experience over twenty years ago. He was, in his words, "a wise-guy, an alcoholic, and a drug addict". As a young man he was drinking a fifth of scotch a day and had to consume a half-pint of brandy upon waking every morning. He had horrific delerium tremens, hallucinations, and seizures. He was in his kitchen one morning contemplating suicide, when he heard a preacher on the radio say, "..there's a young man out there thinking of suicide. If this person would turn his life over to the Lord and ask for His help, He will assist you...find a church where you can be built up." My friend did ask Jesus to help him. Soon after that, he went to a Billy Graham Crusade where he filled out a card in order to be contacted later by a local church group. He indicated on the card that he was a Catholic; to the Crusade's credit, they put him in touch with a local Catholic group where there were a lot of prayerful men. This is not an urban legend. I still talk with this guy. He is quite and unassuming. He hasn't drank or taken a drug since turning his life over to Jesus. Although he does not make a lot of money, he and his wife have adopted two children and he sends all three of his kids to Catholic schools. His life is not without problems as he struggles financially and has problems with his health. But I believe that the Lord acted in soverign way at one point in my friend's life to bring him to safety. And as far as my friend is concerned, the Lord did act through that radio evangelist. The Spirit blows where it will. God is good.

Friday, July 19, 2002

Some people misunderstand the former tagline I had on my humble blog site, "The problem with a zeal for orthodoxoy is that it can become just another carnal aesthetic". It's not that I'm against orthodoxy or even against a passion for it. But I learned through the school of bitter wisdom that one can adhere to the tenets of orthodoxy and sing its praises while not being a holy person or a person who manifests the fruits of the Holy Spirit in his life. If our love of orthodoxy doesn't translate into a passionate love for Jesus, then it's simply like appreciating opera or vintage wine. If the Fruit of the Spirit doesn't proceed from our appreciation of orthodoxy, then it's just another fleshly endearment. Anyway, I had the tag line as an admonishment to myself and as advice to others not to make orthodoxy an end in itself.

Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Vanity of vanities...

Do not store up for yourselves treasures in your 401k plan....

Ted Williams' son obviously isn't familiar with this bit of wisdom:

Many are cold but few are frozen.

Sunday, July 14, 2002

The Road to Perdition opens with a joyless Irish Wake that promises that there will be no "Finn Again" after this affair. In fact, as a result of mouthing off at the wake, a character named Finn McGovern (an allusion to Joyce?) will be sent to the nether world. The movie proceeds with a dull torpor and a funereal sense pervades the whole film. There's plenty of Catholic imagery but, as Peter Sean Bradley points out, it primarily serves as a backdrop much as the frequent rain does. These folks are the quintessential Cultural Catholics; as our fundamentalist brothers would say, they ain't saved. Indeed, as the title of the film suggests, they're damned, cursed, and ultimately guilty of the sin against the Holy Spirit. In a wonderful scene that takes place in the dank bowels of a church, John Rooney tells Michael Sullivan that if there's one thing he's sure of it's that they're both going to hell. If there is any sense of salvation in the film it's that Sullivan's son will not enter "the life"; he is not cursed as Rooney's son is.

Blogging - the way of all flesh.
I was praying before the Eucharist today and caught myself thinking about what I was going to blog about later in the evening. Mea Maxima Culpa!

Saturday, July 13, 2002

Why does the National Catholic Register's pep talk to "go on offense" remind me of the harried Father Lamont (Richard Burton) in the execrable Exorcist II?

The Cardinal: Perhaps you should take a retreat.
Father Lamont: A retreat? Why not an advance?

Friday, July 12, 2002

Michael Bronsky, writing in the Boston Phoenix, give us the poop on Padre Pio and explains to us why John Paul II is making so many saints. Bronsky is the author of Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom. Like I say, I only provide the links.

Thursday, July 11, 2002

I left Ben Hur off of the list of quality films that had Christian themes in them (see post below). I guess one could add it to the list. Although it won eleven Academy Awards, I don't think it's a 'great' film. The chariot race is spectacular and it was awesome to see it as a boy on a big screen. Maybe I subconsciously left it off because I knew that the ever snide Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay. Yes, Karl Tunberg is credited, but it seems that Vidal and Christopher Fry made major contributions (it seems that Maxwell Anderson was also involved). Anyway, William Wyler had a problem with the story. Why would Messala (Stephen Boyd) suddenly be filled with hate for Judah (Charlton Heston) simply because Judah won't support his political goals? Vidal provided a motivation -- Messala and Judah's boyhood friendship had a, uh, romantic component to it. Vidal went to Boyd and told him to play Messala as a smitten lover. Boyd agreed. They all conspired not to let Heston in on the secret. I can't think of a more unlikely candidate to write a screenplay of 'A Tale of the Christ' than Gore Vidal, an avowed enemy of Christianity. Still, as I said above, I wouldn't argue with someone who wanted to add it to the list.

Tuesday, July 09, 2002

Was an instance of grace ever captured better on film than when Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) lifts his niece (Natalie Wood) in the air and says "Let's go home, Debby"? The New Wave film maker, Jean-Luc Goddard, says he weeps every times he watches this scene from The Searchers. Stephen Spielberg says there are four films he always brings with him when he's on location and The Searchers is one of them. Allusions to The Searchers appear in several of Scorcese's movies, two of the Star Wars films, and in a host of other movies. Here is the review I wrote of The Searchers for Amazon:

A masterpiece. This is by far John Wayne's best performance and it was sheer ignorance on the part of the Academy Awards that Wayne wasn't nominated for best actor. Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, is one of the most interesting characters in the history of film. Returning to his brother's homestead three years after the Civil War, Ethan is a mysterious, suspicious man whose motives for coming home are unclear. Where did he get that newly minted Yankee money? And why did he take off before the war anyhow? Ethan and his sister-in-law, Martha, evidently had something going on before the war and she obviously still adores Ethan in a very chaste way. I find the scene where Martha gives Ethan his cape one of the most touching on film. Ward Bond's character witnesses this exchange between Martha and Ethan and sensitively looks away. Did he know of their love in the past? After the two girls are kidnapped by the Commanches, Ethan sets out to rescue them. Over time, he realizes that the surviving girl is by now living with 'a buck'. Ethan's new quest is to kill his niece. Astute critics have pointed out that Ethan's miscegenation is the driving force behind his obsessive search. The Searchers is referenced in several of Martin Scorcese's films. It is one of Stephen Spielberg's favorite movies. The French director Jean Luc Goddard says that he weeps when Ethan lifts Debbie up near the end. A beautiful, profound film that simply goes over the heads of some people who refuse to believe that a Western can be great cinema. There's plenty of flaws and goofs (why are people homesteading in what is essentially a desert?) but it's still a great film.

Monday, July 08, 2002

After reading this article in today's Boston Herald, I don't feel so bad about providing the link below.

Christopher Hitchens comments on the situation. Hey, I'm only providing the link.

Sunday, July 07, 2002

Walking on water wasn't built in a day.

Jack Kerouac


I viewed the gangster film Mean Streets again recently. It's not Scorcese's first film but it's certainly his break out film. As many know, it is suffused with images of Catholicism. Charlie, the main character, prays and goes to confession. When he dresses to go out, it's like watching a priest vest himself before a liturgy. There's a beautiful long shot of a statue of Christ watching over the neighborhood. Charlie digs Francis of Assisi. There's a scene where Charlie's friend Tony makes fun of him because Charlie once got taken in by a urban legend that a priest shared with him on a retreat. Tony heard the same tall story from a different priest on a different retreat. Charlie's upset because the priest told a lie.

Tony: Why do you let those guys get to you?

Charlie: There not supposed to be guys.

He's right. A priest is not supposed to be just like any guy. A great film. (Warning: it's not The Singing Nun.)

Some sage advice:

I remember a film clip that showed Letty at a religious service
in the prison chapel, rising from her knees from in front of the cross,
her clapsed hands extended high above her head in a histrionic
portrayal of prayer. It was almost embarrasing to watch.
But I learned long ago that unless you've had your own
ticket punched in the Garden of Gethsemene, you
shouldn't judge those whose fate it is to visit there.


James Lee Burke
Purple Cane Road

Friday, July 05, 2002

A novel that prophesied the demise of main-line Protestantism and the emerging power of American Catholics.

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara is a great novel. I was led to it by an article in the Atlantic Monthly that lamented the pretentiousness of much of contemporary writing. Not only is the writing pretentious, but it doesn't say anything intelligible. 'Appointment in Sammara', by contrast, tells a story in a direct manner while still revealing to us hidden truths about the human spirit. It's not giving anything away to say that the story concerns the self-destruction of one Julian English. Julian is suave, Protestant, lives in the finest neighborhood, and hangs out with the in crowd. But Julian makes the mistake of throwing his drink into the face of a powerful, nouveau riche Irish Catholic. Suddenly, Julian's support structures don't seem so firm. Julian's descent is heart breaking because, although he is not an especially likeable person, John O'Hara still manages to make us care for him. O'Hara's book was prophetic in that it portrays the end of WASP domination in America. The book takes place in 1930 and was published in 1934, just six years after the Catholic Al Smith was denied the presidency by a virulent anti-Catholic backlash led, in part, by the Klan. We're told that some of the locals in Pottsville (where Julian lives) are members of the the Klan. Twenty-six years later, in 1960, an Irish Catholic would be elected president. Appointment in Samarra is a must read for those who are serious about the American novel.

Wednesday, July 03, 2002

I visited Holy Cross and Boston College with two of my daughters over the last two days. Both schools are very, very expensive (Holy Cross is $33K; BC is $35-36K). Both are also very selective in their admisssions process. It's ironic that B.C. was founded because the Irish immigrants weren't being allowed into other area schools. For years it was a commuter college. Our tour guide (the best guide I've ever had on a college visit) told us that he had been accepted to Harvard and St. Andrews in Scotland but chose B.C. He was high on a jesuit education but at one point he said "Remember you're getting a Jesuit education at B.C., not a Catholic one; there's a big difference". I could have done a twenty minute shtick with that one but chose to leave it alone. Can anyone recommend any 'legacy' Catholic colleges? I'm aware of most of the 'alternative' Catholic schools out there. Since my daughters have already told me to forget it about the only one they know of (Steubenville) they'll probably be put off by Christendom, Thomas Aquinas, etc. By the way, my oldest daughter attended U. Mass / Amherst this past year. I love the price ($10K).