Easter Sunday Paradox

Light rising out of total darkness makes the most stark contrast.

I took this photo at sunrise two days ago. It wasn’t that dark in the environs but my camera pointing at the light source darkens everything else.

 

Rising Light

 

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Let me find Thy light in my darkness,
Thy life in my death,
Thy joy in my sorrow,
Thy grace in my sin,
Thy riches in my poverty
Thy glory in my valley.

–– excerpt from The Valley of Vision

 

On that first Easter Sunday, the ultimate paradox came to pass, for without a willing death, there would not have been a resurrection.

He is risen!

***

 

HAPPY EASTER!

Thanks to the Quarantine Resource List from Alison Chino, I followed the link to her Trinity Aberdeen Pastor’s message from which the above prayer is quoted.

 

 

 

Good Friday Separation

The One who had gone through utter isolation and known our griefs laments with us at this time.

A man of sorrows who had experienced the ultimate separation: In a crisis, his followers deserted him, even his closest denied him; above all, the physical torments on the cross couldn’t match the pain of searing separation from his Father, forsaken.

___________

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

–– Isaiah 53: 2-5

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This song has been on my mind all week. An apt meditation on this Good Friday as we’re all going through separation like never before. I chose a minimal video with just the words and the music. Take a 3 minute respite in your isolation this Good Friday.

 

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Reading the Season: A Verse from Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season

‘Reading the Season’ is my Christmas post every year. It’s always a pleasure to spend some quiet time amidst the hustle and bustle of the festivities to meditate on the essence and meaning of the Season. Yes, something like the perennial “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.

In recent weeks, one of my previous ‘Reading the Season’ posts has seen particularly high traffic, and that’s where I selected a few of Madeleine L’Engle’s poems. Indeed, the brilliant L’Engle had given us more than just A Wrinkle in Time. The versatile writer had 63 publications to her credits.

My favourite of her works is The Crosswicks Journal series. In there is the alchemy of wisdom, experience, and faith. Rereading Book 3 The Irrational Season this time, I came upon this verse which I didn’t notice much before. But this year’s different, for there’s a newborn in the family.

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Here’s L’Engle’s short intro before the poem:

“When I wrote the following lines I thought of them as being in Mary’s voice, but they might just as well be in mine––or any parent’s.” (p. 115, The Irrational Season)

Now we may love the child.
Now he is ours,
this tiny thing,
utterly vulnerable and dependent
on the circle of our love.
Now we may hold him,
feeling with gentle hands
the perfection of his tender skin
from the soft crown of his head
to the sweet soles of his merrily kicking feet.
His fingers softly curl
around one finger of the grownup hand.
Now we may hold.
Now may I feel his hungry sucking at my breast
as I give him my own life.
Now may my husband toss him in the air
and catch him in his sure and steady hands
laughing with laughter as quick and pure
as the baby’s own.
Now may I rock him softly to his sleep,
rock and sing,
sing and hold.
This moment of time is here,
has happened, is:
rejoice!

Child,
give me the courage for the time
when I must open my arms
and let you go.

**

And oh what letting go it was for Mary that day at the foot of a cross, that ultimate letting go, and with it, the awakening which must have brought her back to that first night when she gave birth in the manger.

***

Above Photo Credit: Diana Cheng. An evening view from Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park, September, 2018.

 

Past Reading the Season Posts:

2017: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

 

 

 

The Ultimate Arrival

Spoiler Alert: This post contains a major spoiler of a current movie with a similar name.

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If you’d known the future, would you change anything?

In the movie Arrival, what’s most moving for me is at the end, when we realize, ah-ha! Dr. Louise Banks has seen it beforehand—knowing full well that years later, her husband Ian will leave her, and her dear daughter Hannah will die of illness at a young age—she still chooses to embark on this journey of love and motherhood, a small idea to illustrate a bit of the Ultimate Arrival.

In the words of the story writer Ted Chiang:

“From the beginning I knew my destination, and I chose my route accordingly.”

arrival-1

And here’s another life…

If you’d known that you’d be born in a smelly horse stable, had to flee from a death threat on your life while still an infant, and later, you’d be misunderstood, criticized, rejected, plotted against, deserted and denied by your intimate friends, betrayed, beaten, spat upon, taunted, and finally hung on the cross with just three nails holding you up until death of asphyxiation, and that’s after living a short life of only 33 years, would you rather not be born?

Yet, He chose to arrive.

***

The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

— Madeleine L’Engle

***

Other Related Posts:

Arrival: From Short Story to Film (a spoiler-free review)

Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

Reading the Season: Arti’s Annual Christmas Reads 

Reading the Season: Silence by Shusaku Endo

Click for ‘Silence’ movie review and thoughts.

For this year’s Reading the Season, I’ve chosen Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece Silence. Unlike previous years, it’s not as pleasing and exulting a read at Christmas time.  Rather, it’s unsettling and disturbing. It will interfere with your festive mood. It presents an excruciating dilemma that we hope we may never need to confront, and a question that more likely for us to face: Where is God during our suffering?

silence

Why so unpleasant a read at this time? We’re all busy with our festivities. Who would want to think about such a somber question? Director Martin Scorsese thinks it’s seasonal; Dec. 23 is the day his adaptation of Silence will be released in North America. Mind you, before showing here, it will first premiere at the Vatican. What a diversion of Christmas over there.

Thanks to Scorsese, I dug out Endo’s book and reread it. This time around, it’s even more disturbing for me. However, I also see the light seeping through the cracks of a broken human scene. I sure hope Scorsese’s film — twenty-five years brewing in the director’s heart — can lead to some quiet meditation amidst the cacophony bombarding us these days.

Historical Note

First off, very crucial before reading Silence is to establish a frame of reference; this is furnished by the Historical Note at the beginning of the book. Christianity was introduced to Japan by Francis Xavier in 1549. It was very well received at that point, despite an expulsion order later in 1587 by the Shogun Hideyoshi and the subsequent crucifixion of twenty-six Japanese Christians and European missionaries. By 1600, there were an estimated 300,000 Christian converts living in Japan.

By the time the second expulsion order was issued in 1614, however, the Christian Church in Japan was driven underground. Warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu was resolute in wiping out all traces of Christianity that from 1614 to 1640, an estimated five to six thousand Christians were killed. He later found out martyrdom wasn’t as effective an eradication measure as forced apostasy, especially with leaders of the faith, so torture was widely used towards that end.

crucifixion

In 1632, the Catholic world was shocked to learn that the stalwart leader of the Jesuits mission in Japan, Father Christovao Ferreira, had disavowed his faith and become an apostate after being tortured at ‘the pit’ in Nagasaki. No news of him came after that.

Upon this setting Endo begins his story. The historical novel describes the journey of one fervent young priest from Portugal, Father Sebastian Rodrigues, who has had the privilege to be taught and mentored by Father Ferreira years before. Upon hearing Ferreira’s apostasy, and with the reluctant approval of the Jesuit Superior, Rodrigues and fellow priest Father Francisco Garrpe board a ship and sail all the way to Japan to look for their beloved teacher and to investigate the situation. They have been forewarned, the magistrate Inoue is ruthless.

While still on the ship, the priests encounter Kichijiro, a sly, cowardly, and ambiguous figure who later will wade on shore ahead to guide them to some hidden Christians. For a while, the two Fathers have to hide themselves in a hut on a mountain during the day, and minister to the needs of Japanese believers who, despite the danger, come to seek them out for spiritual matters at night.

Later Kichijiro leads them to a nearby island to meet with more hidden believers. To the welcoming relief of the villagers, the fathers secretly conduct mass and baptism despite the risks. The evasive Kichijiro hangs around like a phantom nemesis.

The people suffer greatly under the rule of magistrate Inoue, yes, that Inoue who Rodrigues was forewarned. He extracts from the poor peasants harsh revenues and infuse the utmost fear into those of the Christian faith with his deathly measures. Rodrigues observes that “The persecutions of Christians make their faces expressionless. They cannot register on their faces any sorrow —nor even joy. The long years of secrecy have made the faces of these Christians like masks. This is indeed bitter and sad.”

Never before has Rodrigues felt so deeply about the meaningfulness of his mission:

“… like water flowing into dry earth … For the first time they have met men who treated them like human beings. It was the human kindness and charity of the fathers that touched their hearts.”

But such a firm conviction begins to shatter when Rodrigues comes closer and closer to the reality of persecution. No, not just of his own, but those of the Japanese peasants, his flock. Many are faithful to the end. When discovered, they would be tied on trees in the shape of a cross at the seashore, the rising tide slowly consumed their bodies after two or three days.

The ultimate punishment is ‘the pit’. Believers are tied up and suspended upside down above a pit. Blood would flow out of their eyes, ears, nose and the slits on the neck. They would be literally drip dry into a slow death through several days.

fumieA way out of such torture is to trample on the fumie. The fumie is a wooden plaque with a copper plate on which the image of Christ was artfully engraved. A person’s willingness to trample on the fumie is Inoue’s way of testing if one belongs to the outlawed Christian religion. It is also a convenient way to turn a believer into an apostate upon the threat of torture and death. One only needs to put one’s foot on the fumie, trample or even just step on it, then one can be released immediately, a most easy and convenient ‘formality’ to show one’s denunciation of faith. This was what happened to Father Ferriera.

The officials would say: “I’m not telling you to trample with sincerity and conviction. This is only a formality. Just putting your foot on the thing won’t hurt your convictions.”

To a believer, this may sound like a temptation, or self-deception. Or, is it a necessary choice to survive?

In this historically based novel, Shusaku Endo (1923 – 1996), a Japanese Catholic, paints a vivid picture of the crisis of faith in the face of extreme suffering, the doubts that often lie hidden even in the most devout. In the midst of persecutions, where is God? Why is He silent?  Endo is not depicting so much about the hubris of foreign missionaries coming with the hope and optimism to preach and convert, but just the opposite, he has exposed the lowest state a believer, let alone a priest, can possibly experience, the utter humiliation of being the one to denounce and betray his God, albeit under duress.

The duress is horrific indeed. The priest sees no glorious martyrdom but is witness to unbearable torture of these peasants. For several nights, the screams and moans of five Christian villagers accompany him in his sleepless nights. Father Rodrigues is thus being dragged into the ultimate dilemma: He only needs to place his foot on the fumie and all five of these suffering peasants will be released right away.

In a court of law, a statement or action made under duress cannot stand as evidence to lay blame, as the subject is under threat and coercion like Father Rodrigues is here. But in the court of the priest’s conscience, it is an ironclad verdict: Apostasy!

As he is struggling with this painful dilemma, trample on it and denounce his faith or five peasants will be suspended in the pit till death, Father Rodrigues seems to encounter an epiphany. Seeing the well-trodden, blacken face of the Christ image on the fumie, the priest hears a voice breaking through the silence:

“‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.”

Indeed, the allusion to Peter’s denial of Christ three times before the cock crows points to Christ’s forgiveness, the light that sheds through the cracks of human failure. After his denial, Peter later served his Lord with transformed fervency and love. Yes, even the Rock, upon whom the Church was to be built, had once denied Christ.

When I first read Silence a few years ago I could not accept Rodrigues’s action. This time around, I’ve come to see that Endo is not discussing theology here, but depicting an imaginary scenario. In the darkest hour of a believer’s journey—likely Endo’s own as well—when a devout is entrapped in an excruciating dilemma like being suspended in the deep pit of spiritual conflicts, Endo draws our attention to the response of a compassionate Christ.

As to the seeming silence of God, Endo lets us hear these internal dialogues:

‘Lord, I resented your silence.’
‘I was not silent. I suffered beside you.’

At the humble manger some two thousand years ago, God had spoken, with a birth that pierced the darkness of that silent night.

***

Reading the Season of Christmas Past:

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

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Saturday Snapshot July 16: Solace

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

I’d never imagine myself typing these words other than the title of the 1963 comedy. Tragedy instead, and very real, not in a movie. What’s happening these past days can drive one to despair. I’m not just thinking about the celebratory crowd mowed down by a truck, family with children watching fireworks. Or here, a mother murdered in her own home, her five year-old girl missing and three days late, her body found in a field. O, a national anthem and a peaceful baseball game jeopardized by a lone-wolf tenor. Or, a U.S. presidential candidate vowing to declare war once he’s elected.

That’s why I appreciate the Pond more and more these days. Not just to take me away from screens big and small, get some fresh air, breathe in the sight and sound of another world. No need for words, it’s a living testament of Nature reassuring the Maker’s Grace, antidote of madness. Not so much a place to escape but to think, revive, and just be.

Peace returns soon as I step out of the car. How does that song go? All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small. I love them all, well some more than others. Like, I’m partial to the tiny yellow warbler than the muskrat:

Yellow Warbler

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I’ve pictures of the muskrat too, but never mind.

The quiet poise of the Eastern Kingbird. Got a juvenile here, I think, from the downy front. Such a tiny creature unknowingly is a carrier of a reaffirming message:

Eastern KB

Yes, even the ‘common’ sparrow (has a name too, Savannah) looks smart and confident. O the comfort of neither having to reap or sow, of being cared for:

The Sparrow

Or no need to worry what to put on. The Cedar Waxwing is often adorned and well groomed, ready for any photo op., yet raising no jealousy:

Cedar Waxwing

It’s a peaceful world out here by the Pond. Another song just come to mind…

 

 

And let it begin with us.

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Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Metro Mommy Reads. CLICK HERE to see what others have posted.

Reading the Season: The Book of Ruth

For the past seven years, I’ve a special post at Christmas which I’d named Reading the Season, just to help me dwell on the Reason behind all the festivities. Some past authors I’d read include Marilynne Robinson, C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Luci Shaw. This year I’m going back to the source material, The Bible, for my Christmas read. And no, my selection isn’t from Luke 2, which Linus so eloquently delivers every year in the delightful A Charlie Brown Christmas.

I reread the little love story in The Book of Ruth, one of the earliest parallels pointing to the Christmas story. This time I found it particularly relevant. So here it goes…

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A long time ago in a land far, far away a man named Elimelech and his wife Naomi, together with their two sons Mahlon and Chilion, had to pack up and leave their hometown of Bethlehem in Judah to escape from a famine in the land. As migrants, they travelled to a foreign country called Moab.

Alas, Elimelech died soon after and left behind Naomi and their two sons. Years passed, the sons married two Moabite gals, Orpah and Ruth. Could it be the food there, for not long after Naomi’s two sons also died. Bitter and despondent, Naomi sent her two daughters-in-law back to their own family and began her lone journey to return to Bethlehem.

But Ruth was adamant to follow Naomi back to where she came from with this moving vow:

Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.

Touched by her loyalty, Naomi let Ruth travel with her back to Bethlehem. She was like a migrant all over again. To the people there Naomi, if anyone still recognized her, was now widowed, sonless, bitter and destitute. The two women didn’t even have a refugee camp to take shelter.

To survive, Ruth went out to the fields to glean the grains left by the harvesters. It happened that they were in the fields of a kind landowner Boaz, who after noticing Ruth and hearing of her love for her mother-in-law, told his workers to leave more grains in the fields for her to glean. Yes, it just happened that she’d come to the right field.

When Naomi learned of Boaz, she saw a glimpse of hope. Definitely this was more than the food bank; this generous landowner actually was a relative belonging to her late husband’s clan. Out of desperation, she sent Ruth on a risky mission: to go to Boaz at night and approach him tactfully, letting him know of their ties in kinship.

Lo and behold, Boaz, an honourable and compassionate man, was harbouring a deep and ardent love for Ruth. That night, though surprised to see Ruth, he received her readily and with respect, restraining and keeping his torrid passion well under wraps, umm like… Mr. Darcy.

According to the law of the land, the closest relative had the first right to redeem the lands that Naomi’s late husband Elimelech had sold and to marry Ruth to carry on the family line. But lo, Boaz wasn’t that person; instead, he did the honourable thing, extending the first right of redemption to the closest relative, yes, like umm… Mr. Collins.

And it happened that Mr. Collins was willing to buy back the land but wait a minute, he couldn’t take Ruth as a wife. There could be reverberations, for Ruth was a foreigner, a Moabite. Further, the land was for her to continue with Naomi’s family ownership, and would not be under his name. “I pass,” he said in the sight of ten elder witnesses. Phew!

So only then did Boaz declare not only his willingness to redeem the land once owned by Elimelech, but also his desire to take Ruth as his wife to save her from destitute, poverty, and childlessness. How marvellous it was that Boaz, a legit kinsman redeemer according to the laws, was also truly, madly, and deeply in love with his redeemed.

And we are definitely indebted to the two lovers for producing the line of descendants, for Ruth later became the great grandmother of David, from whose ancestral line generations later came Jesus.

With this beautiful ending I come back to Christmas 2015, and ponder on the lowly birth of Christ at the manger, to become our Kinsman for the ultimate purpose as Redeemer.

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth.”  – John 1:14

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The Risk of Birth

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

                              – Madeleine L’Engle

***

Previous ‘Reading The Season’ Posts:

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

Seven Stanzas for a Happy Easter

Rocks

 

“Seven Stanzas At Easter” by John Updike

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

– John Updike (1932-2009)

***

Happy Easter to All!

Reading the Season: Surprised by Joy

If Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing. Shakespeare could, in principle, make himself appear as Author within the play, and write a dialogue between Hamlet and himself. The ‘Shakespeare’ within the play would of course be at once Shakespeare and one of Shakespeare’s creatures. It would bear some analogy to Incarnation. — C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (p. 227)

What an apt analogy for Christmas. surprised_by_joy_the_shape_of_my_early_life_frontcover_large_1thqlUR3XQVIcV2 Chronicle of Joy Surprised by Joy is C. S. Lewis’s (1898-1963) autobiographical account of his experience with Joy in his younger days, that elusive something of which he had a hard time grasping. Subtitled The Shape of my Early Life, it is an honest chronicle of an intellectual journey. As a young teenager going to the junior school of Wyvern, Lewis had shed the veneer of Christianity from home and declared himself an atheist. But his quest for Joy remained. It was to him an ‘inconsolable longing’ for ‘the real Desirable’. As a child, a form of Joy came to him through solitary reading, writing and drawing. In his youth, Joy channelled through Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Norse mythology, or Northernness. As he grew, he began to realize that pleasure did not equate with Joy, neither physical nor aesthetic, neither Nature nor Wagnerian music, neither books nor poetry, nor the intellectual gratification from reading, nor the excitement of Northernness.

You might as well offer a mutton chop to a man who is dying of thirst as offer sexual pleasure to the desire I am speaking of. .. Joy is not a substitue for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy. (p. 170)

Reading and Studying Surprised by Joy is Lewis’s chronicle of his encounters with books and countless authors. As a young boy he was first taught Latin by his mother, who sadly died of illness when he was only nine years old. He went through all forms of education, home, public, boarding school, and the most gratifying to him was after his father pulled him out of Wyvern and directed him to a private teacher in preparation for Oxford. While his father was uncertain about the move, Lewis secretly relished the idea and thrived in the experience. His teacher was Mr. Kirkpatrick, or ‘Bookman’. He was an atheist, a rationalist, a logician. He had acutely sharpened Lewis’s critical thinking with logic and Dialectics, and well prepared him to enter Oxford. He assigned to Lewis readings from classical literature: Homer, Demosthenes, Cicero, Lucretius, Catullus, Tacitus, Herodotus, Virgil, Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus. On his own, Lewis immersed in Norse myths and the Wagner’s Ring Cycle. His reading expanded to Goethe and Voltaire. It was only later upon a friend Arthur’s influence that he began to devour literature in the English language. “I read … all the best Waverleys, all the Brontes, and all the Jane Austens.” There were of course others, Donne, Milton, Spenser, Malory, Thomas Browne, George Herbert, the Romantics, Yeats, William Morris, G. K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald.

I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. (P. 190)

Yet he could not help but began to revise some of his world views. Yeats, Maeterlinck, and ultimately, George MacDonald informed him of alternative glimpses other than the material world. Unde hoc mihi I admit I had to look this Latin phrase up. And this I found: Unde hoc mihi … translated as “And whence is this to me” (KJV), or “And why is this granted to me” (ESV) A phrase that moved me so. As I was reading, two-third into his autobiography these words leapt out:

Unde hoc mihi? In the depth of my disgraces, in the then invincible ignorance of my intellect, all this was given me without asking, even without consent. (p. 181)

Lewis describes the epiphany, utterly inexplicable, the moment which came to him when all things seemed so clear, and the presence of something not mythical or magical which he had craved in his mind, but ‘Holiness’. It was then that his Atheism was transformed into Theism (In a moment of divine enlightenment not unlike Levin’s conversion at the end of Anna Karenina.) This humble exclamation unde hoc mihi is used by Lewis as he alludes to Luke 1:43 when Mary, pregnant with the Christ Child, went to see her cousin Elizabeth, who also by miraculous means in her barren state, pregnant with John, the forerunner before Christ. Upon hearing Mary’s salutation to her, Elizabeth felt the babe leap in her womb, and she exclaimed: “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Why, a learned scholar, specialist of the Classics, logical thinker skilled in Dialectics, claimed no credits of his own in this enlightenment. But it is only the beginning, he had not met the Person yet. Further, he realized that whatever that had given him Joy before, like Nature,

that those mountains and gardens had never been what I wanted but only symbols which professed themselves to be no more, and that every effort to treat them as the real Desirable soon honestly proved itself to be a failure. (p. 204)

As he began to teach at Oxford, Lewis was surprised to find two fellow professors he respected were, alas, Christians. One of them was J. R. R. Tolkien. But Lewis was an unlikely candidate for Christianity, with his ‘deep-seated hatred of authority, monstrous individualism, lawlessness’ and his abhorrence of a ‘transcendental Interferer’ (p. 172). Yet that unquenchable longing for Joy was ever present. Friendship with Tolkien began to break down some long held biases. He admitted that “I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths… To accept the Incarnation was a further step… It brings God nearer, or near in a new way.” It was another year before Lewis finally “gave in and admitted that God was God… Perhaps the most reluctant convert in all England.” Ironically, as he humbly exclaimed unde hoc mihi, ‘why is this granted to me’, he was submitting to ‘Divine humility’, the Incarnation. Hamlet finally met his Author. And what of Joy? I can’t give out too many spoilers, can I?

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I read Surprised By Joy along with Bellezza. Do click here to read her thoughts on the book.

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life by C. S. Lewis, Harcourt Publishing, Orlando, Florida, 1955, 238 pages. This is the edition I read with the image posted.

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Reading the Season is my annual Christmas Read:

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

Reading The Season: Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water

Reading The Season: Luci Shaw’s A Widening Light

Reading The Season: Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season

Reading The Season: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

Reading The Season: Fleming Rutledge’s The Bible and the New York Times

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Life of Pi (2012): The Magical 3D Experience

Movies this fall is a bumper crop of film adaptations from literary sources. Two belong to the same genre of magic realism. While Midnight’s Children is more akin to realism, Life of Pi is pure magic.

Ang Lee has done it, filming what is considered the ‘unfilmable’. Canadian author Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning novel Life of Pi is an existential fantasy, a story that challenges the limitations of human reasoning and opens the door to the imaginary and the quest for the Transcendent. What Martel has succeeded in literary form, Lee has realized in this visually stunning cinematic offering. While I know book and film are two very different art forms, I am glad that screenwriter David Magee has stayed true to the spirit of the novel, which I think is crucial in this case. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s creative camera work is also essential in turning Martel’s imaginary world into mesmerizing visuals on screen.

The difficulties are not just transposing the philosophical ruminations from book to screen, but to keep the audience’s attention and interest for two hours when the bulk of the story is about a 16 year-old boy adrift at sea for 227 days in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Kudos to Lee for taking up this daunting task, a project of which several other directors had bowed out, including Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie), M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense), and Alfonso Cuaron (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).

The production has taken Lee years to complete. He had to build the world’s largest self-generating water tank of its kind in Taiwan to shoot his film, utilize 3D technology and CGI to overcome many obstacles, do extensive research, and above all, find an actor who is capable to be Pi.

Ultimately Lee found 17 year-old Suraj Sharma in Delhi, India, from 3,000 candidates. Fate has it that Sharma was just accompanying his younger brother to the audition. The next set of challenges for Lee soon follows: directing Sharma who has never acted before, and, coaching him to imagine there is a fierce tiger present at the scenes, for Richard Parker is a virtual reality.

As I watched the film, I could see Lee’s own tenacity reflected in the character of Pi. In fact, the whole process of the production parallels the thematic significance of the story: the essence of reality, the nature of storytelling, the role of the imagination and faith in survival and in life.

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The film begins with Pi as a boy (Gautam Belur at 5, Ayush Tandom at 12) growing up in Pondicherry, India. His father (Adil Hussain, English Vinglish) owns the Pondicherry Zoo. The most impressionable lesson he learns from his father is, the tiger is not his friend.

Pi has a loving mother (Tabu, The Namesake), and an older brother Ravi (Ayan Khan 7, Mohd Abbas Khaleeli 14, Vibish Sivakumar 19), a typical older sibling who teases and dares. This first act of family life is a delight, and the 3D effect in the opening sequence is wonderful to watch. The original score composed by Mychael Danna matches well with the exotic context.

We soon realize the story we are watching actually is the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan, Slumdog Millionaire) telling what had happened to him as a boy to a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall, A Room With A View), a story, Pi claims, that will make him believe in God.

Pi is short for Piscine. After the boy is constantly teased by his schoolmates with the pun of the name, he begins to introduce himself as Pi. He just might not have known how prophetic his name is. Precocious and earnest by nature, Pi embraces Hinduism, Christianity and Islam in his search for the divine. The value of Pi, the mathematical symbol, is 3.14, a number that goes on to infinity, which aptly reflects the boy’s heart for the Eternal.

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When he is 16 (Suraj Sharma), Pi’s family emigrates to Canada. They set sail on the Japanese cargo ship Tsimtsum, bringing on board the zoo animals. One stormy night, tragedy strikes. A shipwreck sends Tsimtsum to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Pi alone is saved as some sailors throw him overboard onto a lifeboat. Thus begins the magical journey of life in an open boat. Pi soon finds out he is not alone, for there in the boat is a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan called Orange Juice, and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. Soon there remain only two survivors, a 16 year-old Indian boy and a hungry tiger.

Lee demonstrates his technical and directorial prowess in this major second act of the film. He has aptly chosen to use the 3D camera. I’m not a fan of 3D, nor animal movies, but Lee’s usage of it makes what could have been an uneventful drifting at sea into an extraordinary movie experience.

What I read in the book jump out alive in magnificent visuals: the squall of flying fish, the gigantic whale shooting up from the ocean deep, the cosmic showcase of thunder and lightning, and the island overrun by meerkats. Magical realism in 3D, pure cinematic fantasy.

Lee’s style is minimalist: a life boat, a makeshift raft, a boy, a tiger, the open sea. Its simplicity exudes immense beauty; its stillness evokes quiet ruminations. This is not just a castaway, survival story. It depicts a close encounter of a soul experiencing nature and its maker. It also portrays an unlikely companionship between a boy and a tiger. Despite the loss of his family and the perils thrown at him, Pi clings to life with bare faith and the companionship he finds in Richard Parker.

The last part comes as a twist. Two employees of the ship’s insurance company interview the sole survivor of the shipwreck after Pi is rescued. Upon hearing Pi tell his ordeal, their rationale overrides any acceptance of the improbable. Here we see the thematic elements of fantasy versus reality, faith versus plausibility cleverly laid out. Like Martel’s novel, it poses a question that is open-ended, more for the viewer to resolve than for Pi to prove. A most thought-provoking end to a magical journey.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

This review has been published in the Asian American Press print version, Nov. 30, 2012 issue. Online edition here. (Hint: There you’ll find Arti morphing from virtual reality into real life… take whatever is real for you.)

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CLICK HERE to read my Book Review of Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

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Photos posted here are stills from movie trailer.

A NOTE ABOUT MOVIE PHOTOS: These images are used according to the Fair Use guidelines for criticism, comment and educational purposes. CLICK HERE for more information. CLICK HERE to read the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Society For Cinema Studies, “Fair Usage Publication of Film Stills” by Kristin Thompson.

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Diary of a Country Priest: Film Adaptation (1951)

For me, the cinema is an exploration within. — Robert Bresson (1903-1999)

Robert Bresson is one of the most influential figures in French cinema. The acclaimed New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard once noted: “Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.”

I know, Austrians would say Mozart was Austrian. But this just shows his influence can cross borders. Same with Bresson, who is acclaimed as one of the forefathers of the French New Wave, even though his style is not experimental. The iconic Swedish director Ingmar Bergman had specifically cited Diary of a Country Priest as influence for his Winter Light.

Before Bresson adapted Diary of a Country Priest, two previous screenplays were attempted by others but turned down by the author Georges Bernanos himself. Bresson’s film was made after Bernanos died. Bernanos had nothing to worry about with Bresson’s interpretation, for the film is an almost literal and a worthy cinematic translation. It won the Prix Louis Delluc in France (best film of the year) and several international film awards. Bresson was given the Career Golden Lion at the 1989 Venice Film Festival.

That Bresson, a professed agnostic, would choose to adapt a work by the Catholic writer Bernanos shows the moving power and the universal appeal of the book. The parish of Ambricourt is a microcosm of the human world. The seemingly placid village hides a spiritually barren landscape and a cocoon of depravity. The young priest, an unwelcome alien, is captured cinematically as small and vulnerable, an apt depiction of how he feels within:

An outsider barred from a gated mansion of dark secrets, like here at the front gate of the Château.

The light comes into the world, but the darkness refuses it. On screen, we see the young priest often shut out of gates and windows. The glass pane allows him to be observed from the inside, yet he is very much on the outside isolated, the weight of the world heavy on his face.

Bresson’s style is minimal, you may find this film somewhat austere. But I’m gratified by such style, devoid of color and whatever additives we find in movies today. Instead, every frame conveys an aesthetic simplicity and thematic purpose.

To explore the drama within, Bresson chose ‘non-actors’. “As far as I can, I eliminate anything which may distract from interior drama,” Bresson was quoted saying, and distractions included ‘acting’. He selected his ‘models’ (as he called them, not ‘actors’) first for their voice. He particularly looked for inexperience. The young Curé of Ambricourt was Claude Laydu’s first film role. Others that Bresson used were often one-time actors just for the film he was making.

The Criterion Collection DVD has a most helpful commentary by film historian Peter Cowie. His insight is invaluable to the appreciation of Bresson’s adaptation. One of his remarks is the off-screen sounds we often hear in a scene. The most intense one would have to be the climatic spiritual battle between Mme la Comtesse and the young priest. Totally engulfed by grief, hatred and bitterness, and living in isolated misery all the years since her young son died, Mme la Comtesse finally releases her pain and receives blessings from the priest. And what sound do we hear off-screen the whole time they are engaged in this soul-piercing scene in the drawing room: the gardener’s raking of dead leaves.

Another source I’ve often sought out is the book written by Paul Schrader: Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Yes, if I must choose a word to describe Bresson’s style, I would use Schrader’s term: transcendental. His minimal, aesthetically simple, ‘non-acting’ style raises the viewer to a meditative plane which is beyond the material, beyond all distractions. That’s the essence of cinema that I find so meaningful and gratifying.

And finally, despite succumbing to his illness, the young priest leaves a legacy that his superiors, the senior vicars, could not have: an embodiment of the suffering Christ and the redemptive power of grace. Despite his own frailty and ultimate death, the young country priest  triumphs through his faith, however feeble it may have seemed in his own eyes. It does not matter, for all is grace.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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AND TO ALL, A HAPPY EASTER!
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Diary of A Country Priest: A Book for Easter

Every year around this time, I come back to my perennial read The Diary of A Country Priest by French author Georges Bernanos(Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1936). In this book, I find the essence of Easter.

A young preist comes to his first parish, the rural town of Ambricourt, full of humble ideals. All he wants is to serve the people, to give of himself, to bring God’s love. But as soon as he sets foot in the village, he is engulfed by hatred and rejection. There are dark secrets too sinister to be exposed. The young priest is an unwelcome alien. In a town afflicted by hypocrisy, pride, anger and bitterness, he is despised, taunted and ridiculed. His own innocence is no match even for the children in his catechism class, especially the precocious Seraphitas, a girl ‘with a hardness far beyond her years.’

Ambricourt is a world afflicted by the ‘leprosy of boredom’, a microcosm of the human condition. Bernanos uses diseases to illustrate his point well. The young priest himself is being slowly consumed by terminal illness. The pain in his stomach ultimately defeats his body, cancer. His diet consists mainly of bread dipped in wine which he makes for himself, and some potato soup. Poverty of means, but also frailty of body to take in solid food. Many a times we see him in the Garden of Gethsamane, pleading for strength in anguish. But he faithfully presses on, using his diary to confide his deepest thoughts, a means to commune with his God.

On the outskirt of Ambricourt is the Château of the powerful M. le Comte. The Count needs no priest to know about his adulterous affairs, this time, with the governess Mlle Louise. His wife Mme la Comtesse is totally absorbed by her long-held bitterness and grief from the loss of her young son. And his daughter Mlle Chantal is a deeply disturbed girl eaten up by anger and jealousy. Soon, she will be sent away to England, a most convenient plan devised by her father.

It is with this deep mess of a family that the young priest finds himself entangled. The most intense scene of the whole book, the climatic moment, comes when the priest goes to the Château to meet with Mme la Comtesse. She lost her beloved son when he was only eighteen months old, a child hated by his jealous older sister Chantal.

On his last day they went out for a walk together. When they came back my boy was dead.

Mme la Comtesse is fully engulfed by hatred for her daughter, grief for her lost son, and bitterness towards God.

Hearing her speak, a tear flows down the face of the young priest. “Hell is not to love any more, madame.” The young priest responds. And with miraculous strength, he delivers the following words.

… But you know that our God came to be among us. Shake your fist at Him, spit in His face, scourge Him, and finally crucify Him: what does it matter? It’s already been done to Him.

Towards the end of some soul piercing exchanges, Mme la Comtesse kneels down, releases her pain, and receives blessings from the young priest. Afterwards, she writes to him in a letter:

… I have lived in the most horrible solitude, alone with the desperate memory of a child. And it seems to me that another child has brought me to life again…

And this young child, a priest, consumed by illness, wreaked by frailty of spirit, can only marvel at the power through weakness:

Oh miracle — thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands!

Not long after this, he succumbs to his illness. A life too short, a mission seems unaccomplished. But his last words faintly uttered on his deathbed are as powerful as the God who sends him:

Does it matter? Grace is everywhere…

And in the film, these three words leave me with one of the most impressive endings of all the films that I’ve seen:

“All is grace.”

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~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

CLICK HERE to read my film review of The Diary of a Country Priest.

The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos, translated by Pamela Morris, Perseus Books Group, Philadelphia, PA, 1965, 298 pages.

Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1936, was winner of the Grand prix du roman de l’Académie française.