Saturday, April 7, 2007

For New Members of the Church

The soul, touched with the love of Christ the Spouse, and longing to attain to His grace and gain His goodwill, goes forth here disguised with that disguise which most vividly represents the affections of its spirit and which will protect it most securely on its journey from adversaries and enemies, which are the devil, the world, and the flesh. Thus the livery which it wears is of three colors – white, green, and purple – denoting the three theological virtues, faith, hope and charity. By these the soul will not only gain the grace and goodwill of its beloved, but it will travel in security and complete protection from its three enemies: for faith is an inward tunic of whiteness so pure that it completely dazzles the eyes of the understanding. And thus, when the soul journeys in its vestment of faith, the devil can neither see it nor succeed in harming it, since it is well-protected by faith – more so than by all the other virtues – against the devil, who is at once the strongest and the most cunning of enemies.

It is clear that St. Peter could find no better protection than faith to save him from the devil, when he said: Cui resistite fortes in fide (1 Peter 5:9). And in order to gain the grace of the Beloved, and union with Him, the soul cannot put on a better vest and tunic to serve as a foundation and beginning of the vestments of the virtues, than this white armor of faith, for without it, as the Apostle says, it is impossible to please God, and with it, it is impossible to fail to please Him. For He Himself says through a prophet: Sponsabo te mihi in fide (Hosea 2:20). Which is as much as to say: If thou desirest, O soul, to be united and betrothed to Me, thou must come inwardly clad in faith.

This white garment of faith was worn by the soul on its going forth from this dark night, when, walking in interior constraint and darkness, it received no aid in the form of light from its understanding, neither from above, since Heaven seemed to be closed to it and God hidden from it, nor from below, since those that taught it satisfied it not. It suffered with constancy and persevered, passing through those trails without fainting of failing the Beloved, Who in trials and tribulations proves the faith of His Bride, so that afterwards she may truly repeat this saying of David, namely: ‘By the words of Thy lips I kept hard ways’ (Psalm 17:4).

Next over this white tunic of faith the soul now puts on the second color, a green vestment. This signifies the virtue of hope, wherewith the soul is delivered and protected from the second enemy, the world. For this green color of living hope in God gives the soul such ardor and courage and aspiration to the things of eternal life that, by comparison with what it hopes for therein, all things of the world seem to it to be, as in truth they are, dry and faded and dead and nothing worthy. The soul now divests and strips itself of all these worldly vestments and garments, setting its heart upon naught that is in the world and hoping for naught, whether of that which is or of that which is to be, but living clad only in the hope of eternal life. Wherefore, when the heart is thus lifted up above the world, not only can the world neither tough the heart nor lay hold on I, but it cannot even come within sight of it.

And thus, in the green livery and disguise, the soul journeys in complete security from the second enemy. For St. Paul speaks of hope as the helmet of salvation (1 Thess 5:8) – that is, a piece of armor that protects the whole head, and covers it so that there is uncovered only a visor through which it may look. And hope has this property, that it covers all the senses of the head of the soul, so that there is naught so ever pertaining to the world in which they can be immersed, nor is there an opening through why any arrow of the world can wound them. It has a visor, however, which the soul is permitted to use so that its eyes may look upward, but nowhere else; for this is the function which hope habitually performs in the soul by directing of its eyes upwards to look at God alone, even as David declared that his eyes were directed, when he said: Oculi mei semper ad Dominum (Psalm 25:15). He hoped for no good thing elsewhere, save as he himself says in another Psalm: ‘Even as the eyes of the handmaid are set upon the hands of her mistress, even so are our eyes set upon our Lord God, until He have mercy upon us as we hope in Him’ (Psalm 123:2).

For this reason, because of this green livery, the Beloved has such great pleasure with the soul that it is true to say that the soul obtains from Him as much as it hopes from Him. Wherefore the Spouse in the Songs tells the Bride that, by looking upon Him with one eye alone, she has wounded His heart (Song of Songs 4:9). Without this green livery of hope in God alone it would be impossible for the soul to go forth to encompass this loving achievement, for it would have no success, since that which moves and conquers is the importunity of hope.

Over the white and the green vestments, as the crown and perfection of this disguise and livery, the soul now puts on the third color, which is a splendid garment of purple. By this is denoted the third virtue, charity. This not only adds grace to the other two colors, but causes the soul to rise to so lofty a point that it is brought near to God, and becomes very beautiful and pleasing to Him, so that it makes bold to say: ‘Albeit I am black, O daughters of Jerusalem, I am comely; wherefore the King hath loved me and hath brought me into His chambers’ (Song of Songs 1:5). This livery of charity, that of love, causes greater love in the Beloved, and not only protects the soul and hides it from the third enemy, the flesh (for where there is true love of God there enters neither love of self nor that of other things of self), but even gives worth to the other virtues, bestowing on them vigor and strength to protect the soul, and grace and beauty to please the Beloved with them, for without charity no virtue has grace before God. This is the purple spoken of in the Songs (Song of Songs 3:10), upon which God reclines. Clad in this purple livery the soul journeys when it goes forth from itself in the dark night, and from all things created, ‘kindled in love with yearnings,’ by this secret ladder of contemplation, to the perfect union of love of God, its beloved salvation.

This is the disguise which the soul says that is wears in the night of faith, and these are its three colors. They constitute a most fit preparation for the union of the soul with God, according to its three faculties, which are understanding, memory, and will. For faith voids and darkens the understanding as to all its natural intelligence, and herein prepares its union with Divine Wisdom. Hope voids and withdraws the memory from all creature possessions; for as St. Paul says, hope is for that which is not possessed (Romans 8:24); and thus it withdraws the memory from that which it is capable of possessing, and sets it on that for which it hopes. And for this cause hope in God alone prepares the memory purely for union with God. Charity, in the same way, voids and annihilates the affections and desires of the will for whatever is not God, and sets them upon Him alone; and thus this virtue prepares this faculty and unites it with God through love. And thus, since the functions of these virtues is the withdrawal of the soul from all that is less than God, their function is consequently that of joining it with God.

And thus, unless it journeys earnestly, clad in the garments of these three virtues, it is impossible for the soul to attain to the perfection of union with God through love. Wherefore, in order that the soul might attain that which it desired, the loving and delectable union with its Beloved, this disguise and clothing which it assumed was most necessary and convenient. And likewise to have succeeded in this clothing itself and persevering until it should obtain the end and aspiration which it had so much desired, the union of love, is a great and happy chance.

St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul

For Members of the Church

An Act of Contrition

I, in the Presence of God and of all the Company of Heaven, having considered the Infinite Mercy of His Heavenly Goodness towards me, a most miserable, unworthy creature, whom He has created, preserved, sustained, delivered from so many dangers, and filled with so many blessings: having above all considered the incomprehensible mercy and loving kindness with which this most Good God has borne with me in my sinfulness, leading me so tenderly to repentance, and waiting so patiently for me till this year of my life, not withstanding all my ingratitude, disloyalty, and faithlessness, by which I have delayed turning to Him, and despising His Grace, have offended Him anew: and further, remembering that in my Baptism I was solemnly and happily dedicated to God as His child, and that in defiance of the profession then made in my name, I have so often miserably profaned my gifts, turning them against God’s Divine Majesty: I, now coming to myself prostrate in heart and soul before the Throne of His Justice, acknowledge and confess that I am duly accused and convicted of treason against His Majesty, and guilty of the Death and Passion of Jesus Christ, by reason of the sins I have committed, for which He died, bearing the reproach of the Cross; also that I deserve nothing else save eternal damnation.

But turning to the Throne of Infinite Mercy of this Eternal God, detesting the sins of my past life with all my heart and al my strength, I humbly desire and ask grace, pardon, and mercy, with entire absolution from my sin, in virtue of the Death and Passion of that same Lord and Redeemer, on Whom I lean as the only ground of my hope. I renew the sacred promise of faithfulness to God made in my name at my Baptism; renouncing the Devil, the world, and the flesh, abhorring their accursed suggestion, vanities, and lusts, now and for all Eternity. And turning to a Loving and Pitiful God, I desire, intend, and deliberately resolve to serve and love Him now and eternally, devoting my mind and all its faculties, my soul and all its powers, my heart and all its affections, my body and all its senses, to His Will. I firmly resolve never to misuse any part of my being by opposing His Divine Will and Sovereign Majesty, to which I wholly immolate myself in intention, vowing ever to by His loyal, obedient, and faithful servant without any change or recall. But if unhappily, through the promptings of the enemy, or human infirmity, I should in anyway fail in this resolution and dedication, I do most earnestly resolve by the Grace of the Holy Spirit to rise up again so soon as I shall perceive my fall and turn anew, without any delay, to seek His Divine Mercy. This is my firm will and intention, my inviolable, irrevocable resolution, which I make and confirm without any reserve, in the Holy Presence of God, in the sight of the Church triumphant, and before the Church militant, which is my mother, who accepts this my declaration. Be pleased, O Eternal, All-Powerful, and All-Loving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to confirm me in this my resolution, and accept my hearty and willing offering. And inasmuch as Thou hast been please to inspire me with the will to make it, give me also the needful strength and grace to keep it. O God, Thou art my God, the God of my heart, my soul, and spirit, and as such I acknowledge and adore Thee, now and for all Eternity. Glory be to Jesus. Amen.

St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish?

Psalm 5: 2-3
Hear my words, O Lord;
listen to my sighing.
Hear my cry for help,
my King, my God!

We are in a Swedish manor at the turn of the 20th century. Clocks decorated with gilded cherubs are placed on tables and mantles in rooms decorated in white, black, and scarlet red. They mark the time of the life we have on earth, the time we have to endure suffering. We hear the first words: "It is early Monday morning, and I am in pain." They are spoken by Agnes (Harriet Andersson), one of three sisters. Her sisters have gathered in their family home to keep vigil, for Agnes is dying.

Roger Ebert has called Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1973) a film whose subject is pain. The deep red has a meaning, for red is the color of the membrane of the soul: "red represents for me the interior of the soul. When I was a child, I imagined the soul to be a dragon, a shadow floating in the air like blue smoke - a huge winged creature, half bird, half fish. But inside the dragon, everything was red." What isn't red in this film is the white of purity and resurrection, or the black of death.

Psalm 13: 2
How long, Lord? Will You utterly forget me?
How long will You hide Your face from me?

"It is a monumental tissue of lies."

This family has been internally ripped apart by events that are never mentioned. Instead of love, they bear hate for each other. As a child, Agnes' own mother would never look at her without scolding her, and once when Agnes goes to comfort her mother, she recognizes suffering, ennui, and longing. Besides Agnes, only the maid Anna (Kari Sylwan) has the capacity for love. But Anna too has suffered lost; her daughter died, and an empty crib is placed next to the table where Anna each morning prays a simple prayer to God for her daughter. Anna is the suffering mother who loses one child and will lose another (Agnes) that she has nurtured.

Psalm 7: 15-17
Sinners conceive iniquity;
pregnant with mischief,
they give birth to failure.
They open a hole and dig it deep,
but fall into the pit they have dug.
Their mischief comes back upon themselves;
their violence falls on their own heads.

"It's so strange how we don't reach each other, we only make small talk."

Maria (Liv Ullman) is the sister who is the beautiful hypocrite. She wears the color red - not of life, but of seduction. When she attempts to seduce the doctor (Erland Josephson), he points out every line on her face. Her hypocrisy is in the corner of her eyes. Her lies rest in the curve of her mouth. Her thoughtlessness is in the frown of her forehead. Her sins have been carved into her face; her beauty is only an illusion. The cruelty that is visible in her features matches that of a woman who is horrified at the selfishness of her cuckolded husband when he attempts to kill himself. Falling to the floor, he asks for her help and she refuses. It is no surprise that she cannot sustain herself through the night's vigil for Agnes.

Karin to Maria: "Do you realize I hate you? And how foolish I find your insipid smiles and your idiotic flirtatiousness? I know of what you're made - your empty caresses and false laughter."

Psalm 25: 16-18
Look upon me, have pity on me,
for I am alone and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart;
bring me out of my distress.
Put an end to my affliction and suffering;
take away all my sins.

"I don't want you to be kind to me."

Karin (Ingrid Thulin) is the sister tied down in self-loathing, rendered mute by her pain. Married to an indifferent man, she is willing to stab and cut at her own body in order to feel. Persons who self-mutilate do so to give physical expression to emotional pain, to see a physical manifestation of their internal aching. But Karin doesn't cut her leg or arm, she wounds the parts of her body that in women is hidden - her life-giving parts. To mutilate herself in this way is to hate life and humanity, to refuse to take part in the human story through her own addition to it. She smears the blood from this deep cut across her mouth, the mouth that contains the breath of life, the betrayer's kiss, the sign of affection towards others. And then she smiles triumphantly at her husband.

When Maria and Karin are able to speak to each other for the first time, they touch and caress each other’s hands and faces. They are like two giddy schoolgirls, learning the art of affection and friendship for the first time. But in the end it is artifice and parody, for they are committed to their own individual loneliness.

Karin: "You touched me, don't you remember that?" Maria: "I don't recall each stupid act."

Psalm 32: 11-14
My life is worn out by sorrow,
my years by sighing.
My strength fails in affliction;
my bones are consumed.
To all my foes I am a thing of scorn,
to my neighbors, a dread sight,
a horror to my friends.
When they see me in the street,
they quickly shy away.
I am forgotten, out of mind like the dead;
I am like a shattered dish.
I hear the whispers of the crowd;
terrors are all around me.

"Can't anyone help me?"

Agnes is the sacrificial lamb. What internal rot is consuming her with pain? Her skin is pale, her eyes are sunken. She sweats and spreads her arms across the white sheets, Christ-like. Her sisters abandon her: they turn away from her cries and leave Anna to hold her in loving and motherly arms, like the Virgin holding Christ. Agnes screams and screams. She convulses and dies.

Bergman gets in his dig at organized religion through the lack of comfort the pastor provides. What formulaic prayers can explain the significance of the suffering Agnes has endured? "He found you worthy of bearing a long and tortuous agony. You submitted to it the certain knowledge that your sins would be forgiven through the death on the Cross of your Lord, Jesus Christ. Plead with him that he may make sense and meaning of our lives." He turns to the sisters and confesses, "Agnes' faith was stronger than mine." For faith involves acceptance of suffering, enduring it without questions of how or why. Pain is in the order of things in this world, and we cannot use a false countenance to hide from it like Maria does, or use it as an excuse for self-pity and withholding of love towards others like Karin does. Instead, we must accept it as Anna does, a woman who can go from offering prayers to her beloved dead child to eating an apple.

Psalm 102: 4-8, 10
For my days vanish like smoke;
my bones burn away as in a furnace.
I am withered, dried up like grass,
too wasted to eat my food.
From my loud groaning
I become just skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake and moan,
like a lone sparrow on the roof.
I eat ashes like bread,
mingle my drink with tears.

In a strange stage between death and the beyond, in Anna's dream, Agnes cries tears again. She calls for her sisters: "Can't you hold my hands and warm me? It's so empty all around me. Stay with me." Karin refuses: "I won't accept involvement with your death. Perhaps if I cared, but I don't care." Maria allows the dead Agnes to embrace her, but then screams and shoves her away: "No, I am alive!" Both Karin and Maria tell Anna not to go near Agnes' corpse, but Anna embraces her on the bed.

Psalm 116: 7-9
Return, my soul, to your rest;
the Lord has been good to you.
For my soul has been freed from death,
my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
I shall walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.

After Agnes' funeral, the sisters and their husbands prepare to leave the manor. The home will be sold, the items divided, and Anna is out of work. They do allow her to have some memento of Agnes' and Anna chooses Agnes' diary. Anna reads from it and we see the three sisters, dressed in white, walking among trees in autumn. Here, all Agnes' aches and pains are gone. She is talking and laughing with her sisters, the sisters who will abandon her at the hour of her death, for they have no love in their hearts to share with her, no interest in relieving her suffering. And yet she holds no ill will towards them, or towards a God who would have her endure such suffering.

Psalm 139: 5
Behind and before You encircle me
and rest Your hand upon me.

"I felt the presence of their bodies, the warmth of their hands. Come what may, this is for a moment, I can experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful for my life, which gives me so much."

Ingmar Bergman (b. 1918) was the son of a Lutheran pastor. Following a strict (to say the least - as a child he was severely punished by his father for minor transgressions ) upbringing that no doubt shaped his attitude towards religion in his mature life, he began his career as a theatre and film director and did make several films with religious themes; The Seventh Seal (1957), The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), and Winter Light (1963) are the most famous of his films with religious subjects. While filming Winter Light he claimed to have realized he had lost his faith in God at the age of 8, and after a series of nervous breakdowns, his next films beginning with Persona (1965), focused on issues of identity and self, alienation and betrayal, where individuals in intimate relationships go at each other with sharpened blades. As one film critic summarized this stage of his career, Bergman had figured out how to turn his own personal anguish into cinematic art. Although he was now an agnostic and once called Protestantism "a wretched kettle of fish," he nevertheless, in what Pauline Kael called "cinema of the inner life," addressed issues of the human condition that are relevant to religion. Painting is Gauguin's Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889)

Happy Birthday Sadie!

For my spoiled feline companion, who turns 4 today! How they grow up!

And I could never forget my big boy, who turned 8 in February!