“La La Land” is the only recent movie I have seen to which I can relate to so completely. My husband and I finally got around to it the other night on our anniversary. We had gone out for a nice Italian dinner, perused a used bookstore, came home to kids ready for bed (thank you, babysitter), put them to bed, and streamed the movie on my husband’s laptop—the strange mix of modern times and traditional ways did not strike us as funny at all. Of course we would stream a movie on our date night since we do not have a television. Of course we would first take time to Instagram a picture of the gorgeous 90-year-old 31-volume set of Robert Louis Stevenson we had found at the bookstore lamenting, yet thankful, that the books had been passed over so many times to have been marked down three times. We felt that we had to liberate them from the dusty top shelf and bring them to a place where they would be truly appreciated.
I wondered as we drove home what our society had come to that it did not see the value in so brilliant a writer as Stevenson or even the set of Charles Dickens that we left waiting for another sympathetic buyer. And then we turned on “La La Land”—a film about people of my generation seeking their dreams and discovering that they cannot perhaps have it all after all, a film indicative of our generation discovering that all the liberation that happened in the sixties and seventies did not give us anything solid to stand on. In fact the film downright promotes all that my adult life has been focused on—discovering the beauty of our past traditions and bringing them back as fully as possible into our modern lives. I am fully aware that we cannot have the fifties again—nor do I want the fifties again. We can’t go back, but we can recover the beauty that was lost, because the artifacts of it are still there to be found…
One of the most frustrating things on a weekend night is finding something worthwhile to watch on television or a computer screen. There seem to be limitless options, but I know that most of them are not worth watching. Why would I spend that time watching something that will make me a worse person the next day?
Don’t get me wrong, relaxation and recreation are a good thing, and surely there is some moral benefit to be derived from taking in a good movie, play or book.
In fiction, we can understand and explore moral situations. We see a character make a bad decision, imagine the consequences and form our consciences against these bad decisions…
1. February 14, 2005—A serious discussion with a pre-theologate (not really a seminarian, I promise… he was just in the “discernment program”)
Freshman year at Franciscan University of Steubenville was a rough year emotionally. I happened to have a massive crush on a guy in the pre-theologate program, and the thing is, he was acting as if he had a crush on me. You know, hanging out together all the time (we were in the same group of friends), singling each other out for discussion, walking a friend back to her dorm across campus together so we could walk back to our adjacent dorms alone, on movie nights sitting right next to each other on the same couch, and there may have been some flirting.
Well it all came to ahead right around St. Valentine’s day (or Sts. Cyril and Methodius Day for those of you who prefer the new calendar). I was confused: was this guy really discerning the priesthood or did he like me? He was less confused about my affection and more confused about his discernment. I confided in a few good friends, including a wonderful couple who let me interrupt their date night in a common room to get advice. They advised me to talk to him and tell him that he was confusing me.
I called him up, and asked to go for a walk because “we needed to talk.” My plan was to tell him that I was attracted to him and to ask him to give me some space, so that I could get over him and he could go on discerning the priesthood. We met up on a rainy courtyard clad in rain jackets (what a mild February that must have been!). I dove right into my problem. “I am attracted to you,” I confessed to him. “Um, well, I am attracted to you,” he replied, and then we paused. What were we supposed to do? Well, I decided to tell him the entirety of my past crushes and involvements with boys; I am not really sure why. I think I wanted to let him know that I really needed him to be straight forward with me. By the end of our discussion we decided that we needed to put serious limits on our interaction since we had become way to close to be “just friends.”
That worked for one emotionally painful week, and then I guess he had had enough. He met with his formation director, told all, and then left the program. He was free to date. The next day he asked me out. There is a lot more that happened after that, but eventually we got married, well three years later, which seems like a long time when you are only 18. I will tell the rest of the relationship history another time.
8 months pregnant with our first. I was showing more than he was.
2. February 14, 2009—Star Trek marathon.
I was 8 months pregnant with our first, and we were 8 months into our marriage. We decided that St. Valentine’s day was the last night of our youth since we were going to be taking care of our baby in a month. We went out to dinner (I can’t remember where), and then went to the best grocery store on the face of the earth, Wegmans, bought some snacks or something, and took turns riding the cart in the parking lot. Yep, I rode a cart at 8 months pregnant; I was empowered by Bradley birthing classes. Then we went over to Blockbuster and rented three of the original Star Trek movies. We then proceeded to watch them one after another, eating food, and wondering if the baby was a boy because the baby sure liked all the sound effects. (She was a girl, or course.)
I think this was my favorite St. Valentine’s day. We spent the first year or so of G’s life watching Star Trek Voyager, and then went through all the other Star Trek shows. We are pretty nerdly.
My Valentines dates in 2012.
3. February 14, 2012—Me and my daiquri.
The winter of 2012 was one of the most stressful of our relationship. M was “on the job market,” and we were in a continual state of anxiety waiting for calls or emails about job interviews. February is the normal month for on campus interviews, and boy M had a lot of them (for which we were very blessed). It seemed like every couple of days he was called out to another interview. I think he was gone for two full weeks of that month.
Well on St. Valentine’s Day, while M was at an awkward job interview dinner with two potential colleagues (not for the position he ultimately accepted) at a restaurant full of couples out on dates, I was hundreds of miles away, at home, having a romantic dinner of what was probably scrambled eggs with a not yet three year old and a one year old. After I put them to bed, I read one of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels and drank a daiquiri (I got pretty good at making daiquiris that month).
After M got back to his hotel and called me up to recap the dinner, he informed me that he had been offered two more interviews. I just about cried, as I was at my wits end with the single parenting stuff, and I am pretty sure my mom friends were tired of me spending half the days at their houses. I made emergency calls to my parents and in-laws begging someone to come stay with me for the last interview. My wonderful mother-in-law took pity on me, and I rewarded her with our traditional Mardi Gras dinner of strawberry filled crepes, ice cream, and bacon.
Much to our relief, M received a job offer on February 17, when he was back home, so even though he was going to be gone for a few more interviews, we had the relief of knowing he would have a job.
And that is it. The rest of the St. Valentine’s days of our relationship probably involve either dinner at some restaurant or staying home with the kids. I can’t really recall.
As for the patron saint of lovers himself, I looked him up in our awesome hardcover Septuagesima volume of Dom Gueranger’s The Liturgical Year, and it turns out that whatever legends we have of him are not part of the liturgical tradition. We know that he was a priest “who suffered martyrdom towards the middle of the third century,” and that “the ravages of time have deprived us of the details of his life and sufferings.” However, we should look to his martyrdom as a model who encourages “us to spare no sacrifice which can restore us to, or increase within us, the grace of God.”
1. This is the last weekend of my husband’s winter break. His school has a January term, in which teaching is voluntary, so he has been researching and class prepping since we got home from the the girls call, “our travels.” We are really going to have to live it up this weekend. It is nice when the semester starts because it helps us establish a better routine. We have been pretty good about home schooling, but getting up for morning Mass has been a struggle. We have been pulling the tired pregnant lady card when the alarm goes off, and while it sounds legitimate, the mornings we do get up I am just fine.
2. The weird thing about this semester is that once finals are done we will be at the due date for this next baby. We have not had a new baby in over two years so it will be a family adjustment. I think it will be easier than the transition to three. When F was born, G was not even 4 and L was almost 2. It will be much different with a 6 year old, a 4.5 year old, and a 2.5 year old, who all play well together.
3. Speaking of a 2 year old, potty training is still going on. It has improved greatly over the weekend from the small accidents we were having last week. The only question is when to stop awarding her with chocolate every time.
4. We finally employed our Ikea greenhouse. We planted our amaryllis from M’s aunt and found some potted herbs at Trader Joe’s. Now I need to get around to planting some basil and find another good indoor flower to get us through until our bulbs come up outside. I really like the greenhouse largely because it is easy to move the plants if we want use of the whole table and it mostly keeps the little hands away from the plants, unless they get a desire for some fresh parsley.
5. We have been spending our last two evenings watching movies about St. Francis of Assisi. The first, Francesco directed by Liliana Cavani, I recommend never watching; it is just not worth your time and really does not portray his life well at all. Cavani does not grasp St. Francis or his motivations whatsoever. The second movie was The Flowers of Saint Francis. It is based on several episodes from the book The Little Flowers of St. Francis, and it embodies Franciscanism beautifully. The neat thing about it is that the director, Roberto Rossellini, used real Francisca friars to play the part of the Franciscan monks.
6. Today, in the old tradition of the Christmas season, we took down our Christmas decorations. F finally got to indulge her toddler desire of taking ornaments off the tree for as long as she desired. I really like the rhythm we have around our Christmas celebration. Taking down the tree listening to Christmas music was an appropriate end cap to our putting it up listening to the same music in December. Tomorrow is Candlemas, the Presentation of our Lord, and we are going to celebrate by having crepes, which is another traditional food. Today also happens to be Septuagesima Sunday, which means buried the “Alleluia” until Easter, and we are 70 days from Easter and less than three weeks from Ash Wednesday.
7. Finally, for people like my sister who like to see it, I present my 22 week bump (and my new favorite, super soft sweater that I found on clearance last week):
Last week, my husband and I got out to the movies to see Hollywood’s latest adaption of the Exodus story, Exodus: God and Kings, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as Ramses II. The movie was full of striking imagery, and the music was reminiscent of the 1998 soundtrack of the Prince of Egypt. It followed the basic plotline of the Exodus story, while taking artistic license in the interpretation of the story.
The director, Scott focused largely on the brotherly rivalry between Moses and Ramses, starting the movie off with a battle against the Hittites in which Moses is a hero. Their relationship plays a key role in the progression of the movie. When Ramses discovers Moses’ true origin he banishes Moses to the wilderness. In the wilderness Moses meets Jethro and his family, and eventually marries one of Jethro’s daughters, Zipporah. Through his relationship with Zipporah, we learn about Moses’ lack of faith in any god. When Moses encounters the burning bush, it is unclear to him whether it was a dream or whether God is really asking him to do something. Through further subtle urging, Moses decides to go back to Egypt and see about freeing his people. He believes that God wants him to be a military leader. Throughout the rest of the movie, Moses spends a lot of time trying to figure out what God wants him to do and acting according to his own judgment. It seems that God has left Moses to free the Israelites through guerilla warfare. Only when Moses attempts fail, does God step in. And when God acts, He does not use his servant, Moses, He does it on His own. Moses responds to the actions with anger towards God. Pharaoh is given no explanation. And the Israelites just sit back and watch.
Scott missed the whole point of Moses’ relationship towards God and the Israelites. He missed the fact that Moses was not just a leader, but was also a mediator. As Catholics we know that God relates to us through human mediators, beginning with the prophets and fathers in the Old Testament and ultimately through Christ.In the book of Exodus, the Lord, hearing the cries of His people, chooses Moses to be His mediator. The role of a mediator is one goes between one party and another. Moses hears and understands God’s plan, his only doubt being that he is not worthy of this role. Moses speaks the words of the Lord to Aaron, and Aaron in turn speaks them to Pharaoh and the Israelites. When the Israelites have a complaint to make to God, such as when Pharaoh increases their workload, they tell Moses and Aaron, who in turn go to God. For each and every plague God tells Moses to warn Pharaoh, and has Moses perform a physical action to bring the plague about. When Pharaoh considers allowing the Israelites to go out into the wilderness to worship he tells this to Moses and Aaron, who then speak to the Lord asking Him to bring an end to each plague. In the Scriptures, God explains the entirety of His plan to Moses, how He ultimately will take His people out of Egypt, how Pharaoh will resist, how He will smite Egypt, and how Moses will do the signs for Him. There is a clear understanding between God and Moses, a clear line of communication, and the Israelites go to Moses when they need to speak to God.
This role of mediator is almost entirely missing from the movie. While in Scripture, God tells Moses clearly what He desires him to do, in the movie Moses is left with a lot of guesswork. In Scripture Moses relies entirely on God as to what he is to do next, and in the movie Moses spends a lot of time seeking God’s help for decisions and not getting any help.
There are three instances where Scott demonstrates a slight understanding of the importance of Moses acting as a mediator between God and the Israelites and Pharaoh. The first is before the final plague, the Death of the First Born. There God reveals His plan to Moses, Moses instructs the Israelites in how to protect themselves through the blood of a Lamb, and Moses warns Pharaoh that the final plague will be the worst. The second instance is at the Red Sea. While in Scripture, Moses is told to raise his arms so that the sea will part, the movie shows Moses making an act of faith that the Israelites will be able to cross the Red Sea. He falls asleep at night trusting that the Israelites will be safe, and wakes the next morning to see that the sea is parting. The final instance is in the last scene where Moses and the Lord are together on Mount Sinai and Moses is writing down the law, finally in agreement with what the Lord is doing.
Maybe Scott intended to use the story of Moses to tell a story of a person growing in faith overtime, but in doing so he missed the point of a mediator. As Catholics, mediation is a crucial part of our practiced faith. Moses is a type of Christ prefiguring Christ and revealing what Christ will be like. Christ, while He is God, also is the definitive mediator. He became man to mediate salvation to us. He established for us the mediation of his mother and that of the Church. The Church mediates God to us through the Magisterium and the Sacraments. Mediation is at the foundation of how we relate to God, and when you take the role of Moses’ mediation from the Exodus story, you miss the crucial way in which God relates to humanity.
**SPOILER ALERT** I have not seen the new movie that came out on Christmas, and will probably not get a chance until it is on video or at the $2 theater in Minneapolis (when maybe I will be willing to leave the baby with a sitter). I have seen the musical performed live and have read the unabridged novel; this reflection is based more on the novel but does not depart from the plot of the musical.
While I can’t boast of fluency in French, I have read that “les misérables” translates into something like “the outcasts” or “the wretched ones” or “the miserables.” I want to focus on the “outcast” translation. If you look at each of the main characters, they are all outside of society: Jean Valjean the exconvict, Fantine the former mistress of a wealthy student who was left with an illicit child, Cosette the orphan child being raised by the exconvict, the Thenardier family who spend their whole lives stealing from people, Javert who is a police officer standing outside society to keep order, and Marius the orphan and republican student.
The character I am going to examine is Jean Valjean. He spent 19 years in jail regretting his small crime, and is filled with rage and hate. He encounters society’s terror of exconvicts when he is on parole when he is unable to find food or shelter; however, even after his conversion caused by the bishop’s kindness, he lives in fear of his former self. No matter how many good deeds he does and how virtuous he becomes, he is always aware of who he is, Jean Valjean the exconvict. It doesn’t matter that all he did was break a window and steal a loaf of bread when he was starving: he is an exconvict. As soon as people learn of his past, they fear him and think that there is no possible way that he can be good. Yet, when they do not know his identity as the exconvict, they recognize his saintly deeds and virtuous character.
There are several turning points in the story where Valjean struggles with choosing the morally right thing. If he follows his conscience, he will have to expose his past (and what he believes to be his true self) and be condemned by those who respect him; however, because of the influence of the bishop, he has been transformed and cannot disregard his conscience. It is not until the end of Valjean’s life that there is a person who is aware of both his criminal history and all the good he has done. This person recognizes that he is a saint.
Jean Valjean represents the life of a saint. He has a conversion, turns from his old life, never does a wrong thing again and is constantly running from his former sins. He seeks the life of virtue and union with God, but is always aware of his sinful nature. He constantly condemns himself when he is already good. He continues to find his weaknesses and overcome them until he has completely abandoned himself to the point of physical death. I think this is how we are called to overcome our sins, to become more and more selfless so that we completely lose ourselves in God. We need to be horrified at our ability to sin and our past sins. Fortunately, God is much more forgiving than society, and we must run to him. Valjean’s one flaw is his inability to accept forgiveness from God for his past sins, but in this he displays what it is to live a penitential life.
If we truly live the call to sainthood, we will be cast out of society like Jean Valjean. To seek be holy in a modern society is to be set apart a life of virtue and penance does not make sense without God. If we are truly seeking to be holy, we will be outcasts. This experience of being cast out of society is becoming more and more real for Catholic Christians in modern America. Being “set apart” is never easy, but with the grace of God it can and will be done. God will provide what we need to be sustained through the community of believers. Valjean says that love is what leads to human flourishing; without love the human soul dies, the human dies. So we must live the lives of saints with those whom we love and not fear the call to be outcasts.