Month: July 2012

With Catholic Eyes

Amidst rifle shots and whooping cries in the pre-dawn darkness, a veteran Irish-American cavalry soldier and a little girl seek shelter from attacking Apaches in the ruins of a Catholic mission; as they hurry through the dilapidated chapel, both pause, turn, and genuflect in the direction of the sanctuary before racing on to their escape.
This scene, from director John Ford’s Rio Grande, perfectly embodies the way a Catholic upbringing manifests itself in the work of Catholic artists; whether or not they drifted from the faith later in life, their roots remained. Not only Catholic imagery, but also notions of grace and redemption, sin and innocence, and the importance of adhering to principles even when the world is against you—all these elements of a Catholic mentality are often so deeply embedded in the perspective of Catholic filmmakers that it cannot help but shine through in their repertoire. Three of Hollywood’s most brilliant directors—Frank Capra, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock—were all raised Catholic, though they did not all exactly fit in the “practicing, faithful Catholic” category. However, regardless of any apparent imperfection of their personal faith lives, Catholic sensibilities were deeply entrenched in their way of thinking and consequently in their films. Even if their faith was somewhat battered and damaged, like the chapel in the scene from Rio Grande, and even if they moved in a world rather hostile to Catholic principles, they almost unconsciously turned to give it reverence, by the content, color, and characters that make up the focus of their work.
An Italian Catholic, Frank Capra was a champion of hanging on to beliefs and ideals when it seems least likely they will triumph. He had an abiding Catholic confidence in man’s basic goodness, and a likewise Catholic respect for the common man. His films celebrated the ordinary man standing up against corruption, greed, and selfishness; he focused on the need for self-sacrifice to bring about change in a wicked world. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is Capra’s moving call for selfless patriotism, in the story of a young, idealistic politician who is “crucified,” as one character puts it, when he takes a stand against corrupt government; it is only when the hero sticks to his ideals, even when they are a “lost cause,” that he undergoes a political death and resurrection and comes out victorious. The same basic concept is found in Mr. Deeds Goes To Town. Arguably Capra’s most famous, It’s A Wonderful Life is a masterpiece of Catholic sentiment, examining the heroic choice to live a quiet life of selfless duty even if it is unglamorous or materially unsuccessful. You Can’t Take It With You runs along similar lines, when Capra contrasts the bitterness and heartbreak that results from pursuing only material pleasures with the contentment and peace possessed by those who set their sights higher and trust God to provide for them, like “the lilies of the field.” 
It doesn’t take much analysis of John Ford’s films to realize that his Irish-Catholic heritage was the wellspring of inspiration for the vast majority of his work. Ford loved to draw on the characters and imagery from Irish-American history; Irish and Catholic characters abound in his films. His pet project was The Quiet Man, set in a small, Catholic, tradition-steeped Irish town; essential to the plot is the fact that the characters look to their local priest for advice and help. But Ford’s work also overflows with subtly Catholic themes of grace and salvation. Stagecoach, for instance—often hailed as the definitive Western—takes a motley handful of imperfect characters—a drunk, an outlaw, a prostitute, a gambler, and a social snob—and charts their journey through a purgatorial experience of mutual suffering. One lesser-known but excellent Catholic-themed work from Ford is 3 Godfathers, in which three bandits become the unlikely godparents and self-sacrificial saviors of an infant in the desert, in a way that parallels the story of the three Magi. 
As a director, Alfred Hitchcock returned again and again to themes of innocence and guilt; to tales of innocent men who find themselves entangled in a world of espionage, or mistaken identity, or crime, who must reorder the situation according to a higher standard of justice. Hitchcock also had a knack for adding Catholic depth to his best thrillers by grounding the hero’s adventures in a moral dilemma. Rear Window, for instance, raises the question of whether voyeurism is ethical if it allows one to prevent or uncover crime, when a man with too much time on his hands begins spying on his neighbors and suspects one of murder. In Rope, the protagonist grapples with the ugliness of intellectual pride—and how it spawns other grave sins. Hitchcock’s most obvious return to his Catholic roots, however, was in I Confess, a chilling examination of a (flawed) priest who keeps his vow to uphold the secret of the confessional even when he is falsely accused of murder as a result.  
To be a Catholic means that the Catholic view of reality shapes all we do, including the art we produce. The confidence in the existence and importance of invisible things like moral principles, the fundamental goodness of life, and man’s need for grace and redemption—these things deep in the spiritual heritage of cinematic masters like Ford, Capra, or Hitchcock, are unmistakably reflected in their artwork. Even if they were—like most of us—not perfect Catholics, the themes and focus of their films prove they are the fruit of a fundamentally Catholic perspective. They saw with Catholic eyes.


“It was a crazy night but . . . y’know. YOLO.” defines “YOLO” as an acronym for “You Only Live Once,” and says it is “mainly used to defend doing something ranging from mild to extreme stupidity.” The new term recently rose into popular parlance after its use in a rapper’s song, and went viral across the cyber sphere as a Twitter craze; #YOLO has become a buzzword for crazy, irresponsible behavior. Got drunk last night at the party? Well, YOLO. Got a tattoo? Did some dangerous stunt? Tried meth? Spent $1,000 on shoes?  Oh, y’know, you only live once. Carpe Diem. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. YOLO.
When I first heard this phrase, and the way it is commonly used, it brought to my mind the day, not long ago, when I attended the funeral of a young man named Andre. I had never met him, but I had been following his story for several years. He was only 16.
In the middle of 8th grade, Andre was unexpectedly diagnosed with leukemia. This summer, after several years of intensive chemo and painful complications, Andre’s earthly body failed him, and he passed away.
His funeral was deeply moving, and at the same time, it had a note of joy; because in spite of all the suffering—the unimaginable suffering of his illness, and the deep sorrow of his family—Andre lived life to the fullest. His family testifies that he was a miracle of moral strength and incomparable faith. He never stopped hoping that he would be healed; he continued his studies, took up new hobbies, was thankful for the blessings he had. He kept on each day doing as he ought to have done. Friends and family spoke of his beautiful smile, his determination, his love.
As I said before, I never knew Andre personally. But as I sat there listening to the testimony of his faith, marveling at his amazing trust in God’s plan for him, it struck me that, while perhaps other may have experienced more than he did, this young man did more with his less-than-seventeen years than many people do with seventy.
He didn’t get to go to college. He never even had the normal “high school experience.” He was confined to a hospital bed for much of the last two years of his life. But he had only one life to live, and he made it a life worth living, by putting his all into everything he did, his love for his family, and whatever trial or task God put before him.
Many would say that Andre had a low “quality of life,” and would pity him because his sufferings prevented him from doing many things.  Such people take “quality of life” as a sort of measure of how much a person is able to enjoy or experience; which is why people say that someone without money for luxuries, or someone who is wheel-chair bound, has a not-so-wonderful quality of life. That particular view of life is what drives YOLO-ists. You only live once. You only have one shot at getting as high as you can, doing daringly stupid activities, experiencing different things in this life to the fullest, they say.
But do people with that attitude comprehend what it really means to say “You Only Live Once?”  On my deathbed, would I be glad if I had done those sorts of things? “Gee, I’m awful happy I won that drinking contest. And my life would have been so much less awesome if I hadn’t gone bungee jumping, or partied it up that one spring break.”
Wouldn’t I rather ask myself, “Did I spend my days well? Will my friends and family have been blessed to know me? Have I given my all for what I believed in? Have I loved others as much as I can, given of myself to help them as much as I can? How has my love borne fruit in my life and in the lives of others?”
Because in the end, it isn’t what wild experiences you had that matters; ultimately, what will matter is how you lived through each ordinary day, whether you lived a worthy life, glorifying God in all you did and pursuing Him with all your might. Yes, it can be hard; it will probably mean less cheap thrills and more living for things that really matter in an ordinary life of work and prayer–maybe even bearing terrible crosses, as Andre did–all for the sake of a far more lasting joy. It will take time, and effort, and giving your all to love to the fullest for God. But, y’know . . . you’ve got one chance. Just do it. YOLO.


You Can’t Take It With You

“You know, Grandpa says most people nowadays are run by fear. Fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, fear of their health. They’re scared to save money, and they’re scared to spend it.  . . . People who commercialize on fear—you know, they scare you to death so they can sell you something you don’t need.”
These words, spoken by dauntless stenographer Alice in director Frank Capra’s 1938 film You Can’t Take It With You, could easily be a snapshot of modern society. The standards set today for a contemporary man, or a contemporary family, drive people to chase certain goals: having a certain kind of car, or a smartphone, or a perfect figure. Consumers dread falling short of the commercial ideal—even if they already possess all that is necessary for a happy life. Yet, they would do well to heed Alice’s inherited wisdom, because, in the face of modern materialism, Capra’s light-hearted You Can’t Take It With You rather boldly aims to redefine personal success and failure. A soul whose sights are set on material success, the film points out, ultimately loses its joy in living.
The story revolves—rather uniquely—not around the two young lovers, Alice and wealthy banker’s son Tony Kirby, but around the heads of their two families and the contrast between their personal philosophies. On the one hand is Anthony P. Kirby, successful businessman disconnected from his wife and son.  On the other is Grandpa Vanderhoff, a father-figure whose zest for life is the heart of his family.
As the story begins, Tony’s single-minded, business mogul father is about to close a major deal, while, one room away, Tony is wooing pretty secretary Alice. When Tony’s mother tells his father about it, Kirby puts the matter aside as unimportant. The real center of his day, the reason he gets up in the morning and goes to work, is not his family, but his business.  Grandpa Vanderhoff’s day, by contrast, is marked by acts of simple wonder at and delight in life: sharing a bag of popcorn, taking a walk in the park, sliding down a banister. He takes a genuine interest in the people he meets. Beginning a conversation with a clerk, he learns the clerk hates his job but has a special talent for toy-making, and invites the man home to dinner—and home to stay. “The same One [takes care of us],” Grandpa explains to him, “that takes care of the lilies of the field, except that we toil a little, spin a little, have a barrel of fun.”
Though his notions may seem foolishly idealistic, he simply has his priorities straight: if pursuing material success destroys a man’s happiness and love for life, it’s not worth doing. Unconventionally, each person in Grandpa’s household chooses whatever enables them to best fulfill their role as members of a family, joyfully—not whatever brings them the most success. Their lives are by no means idyllic; as Vanderhoff says, they “toil a little, and spin a little.”  The family cannot scrape together one hundred dollars when asked to do so; there are even hints there have been harder times in the past. Yet, although the family lives hand-to-mouth; they are content doing so. They are happy, because they are not afraid of material failure; they concern themselves with a more important kind of success. What exactly that success is—and what exactly failure is—only becomes clear when Tony’s upper-crust parents come into direct conflict with the Alice’s colorful family.
Everyone in Tony’s life pursues material goals and consequently lives in perpetual fear. Tony’s father is afraid of failure at any step as a businessman. Tony’s mother is afraid that her son’s middle-class love interest will take a feather out of her social cap. And their associate Ramsey is the tragic portrait of a man so consumed by material business fears that it eventually quite literally kills him. Tony himself ultimately admits to Alice that fear of failure keeps him from pursuing what he really wants in life instead of simply conforming to the social expectations. “It takes courage,” he says, “You know everybody’s afraid to live.”
Such fears so deteriorate the relationships in his father’s life that eventually his father must face the bitter truth about himself: he is, as Grandpa Vanderhoff points out in a very rare outburst of righteous anger, a failure. When Kirby vehemently rejects Alice’s family and their whole class as scum, Vanderhoff loses his temper for the first time in 30 years:

“You’re an idiot, Mr. Kirby,” he cries, “What makes you think you’re such a superior human being? Your money? If you do, you’re a dull-witted fool . . . And a poor one at that. You’re poorer than any of these people you call scum, because I’ll guarantee at least they’ve got some friends. . . . You’ll wind up your miserable existence without anything you can call friend. You may be a high mogul to yourself, but to me you’re a failure – failure as a man, failure as a human being, even a failure as a father.”

In Grandpa Vanderhoff’s eyes, you can’t take it with you. Fears and undue concerns for material success are ultimately irrelevant, as he sees it, because material success cannot last. Capra’s film explores how success in the world’s eyes may mean failure in reality; and failure in the world’s eyes may mean success at what is most important.  It presents a striking perspective on the fear instilled in the soul by materialism—particularly relevant in an increasingly materialistic society, as it undermines the commercial messages which pervade modern life. As Capra carefully makes clear, those who trust in God, like the lilies of the field, need not be anxious about material things, what they are to eat or what they are to wear—for the most successful businessman in all his material splendor was not arrayed in joy as one of these.