St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast day was yesterday, will be our Famous Catholic this week, but, in honor of his actual feast (which I missed), I'm just going to present you with a few of my favorite St. Thomas stories. Now, for those who are unaware, St. Thomas was adorably nerdy most of the time, and obnoxiously pious the rest. Observe:
1. When Thomas was in school, he was a very quiet student, so much so that his teachers and most of his classmates thought he was simply dense. While most of his fellows contented themselves with laughing at him, one decent sort took pity on the fat, slow Thomas and offered to tutor him. Thomas went along with it, allowing the good-natured boy to instruct him, until one day when his tutor encountered a particuarly difficult subject. As he struggled to explain it, Thomas helpfully chimmed in with a staggeringly brilliant dissertation to get his friend passed the rough bit before encouraging him to resume his instruction.
2. After he had joined the Dominicans, they soon realized how brilliant he was and exempted him from manual labor to give him more time to study and write. The result of this sedentary lifestyle was that the already-large Thomas grew even larger, until (so legend has it), they had to cut a section of the table out for him to reach his food.
3. One day, when he and some of his brother monks were visiting King Louis IX of France (St. Louis), one of the brothers gazed around Louis's palace and exclaimed "how wonderful it must be to own all of this!" To which Thomas replied "I would rather have that Chrysostom Manuscript: I can't find it."
4. During that same visit, while the King of France was entertaining his distinguished guests with a lavish feast, Aquinas sat in silence while the conversation waxed and waned about him, until he suddenly struck the table and cried "and that will finish the Manichees!" An awkward silence ensued, except for the king, who ordered his scribes to quickly take down Thomas's thoughts before he forgot about them.
5. In a nearby convent lived a pious nun who would levitate while eraptured in mysical prayer (like St. Joseph of Cupertino). All the friars rushed to see the miracle, dragging Thomas along. As they watched the sister floating in the air, Thomas commented "I didn't know nuns wore such large boots."
Vive Christus Rex!
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Sunday, January 27, 2013
First Reading: Nehemiah 8: 1-4,5-6, 8-10
Then Esdras the priest brought the law before the multitude of men and women, and all those that could understand, in the first day of the seventh month. And he read it plainly in the street that was before the water gate, from the morning until midday, before the men, and the women, and all those that could understand: and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book. And Esdras the scribe stood upon a step of wood, which he had made to speak upon, And Esdras opened the book before all the people: for he was above all the people: and when he had opened it, all the people stood. And Esdras blessed the Lord the great God: and all the people answered, Amen, amen: lifting up their hands: and they bowed down, and adored God with their faces to the ground.
And they read in the book of the law of God distinctly and plainly to be understood: and they understood when it was read. And Nehemias (he is Athersatha) and Esdras the priest and scribe, and the Levites who interpreted to all the people, said: This is a holy day to the Lord our God: do not mourn, nor weep: for all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law. And he said to them: Go, eat fat meats, and drink sweet wine, and send portions to them that have not prepared for themselves: because it is the holy day of the Lord, and be not sad: for the joy of the Lord is our strength.
Second Reading: First Corinthians 12: 12-30
For as the body is one and has many members; and all the members of the body, whereas they are many, yet are one body: So also is Christ. For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free: and in one Spirit we have all been made to drink. For the body also is not one member, but many. If the foot should say: Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body: Is it therefore not of the Body? And if the ear should say: Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body: Is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were the eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, every one of them, in the body as it has pleased him. And if they all were one member, where would be the body? But now there are many members indeed, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand: I need not your help. Nor again the head to the feet: I have no need of you. Yea, much, more those that seem to be the more feeble members of the body are more necessary. And such as we think to be the less honourable members of the body, about these we put more abundant honour: and those that are our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. But our comely parts have no need: but God has tempered the body together, giving to that which wanted the more abundant honour. That there might be no schism in the body: but the members might be mutually careful one for another. And if one member suffer anything, all the members suffer with it: or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and members of member. And God indeed has set some in the church; first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly doctors: after that miracles: then the graces of healings, helps, governments, kinds of tongues, interpretations of speeches. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all doctors? Are all workers of miracles? Have all the grace of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But be zealous for the better gifts. And I show unto you yet a more excellent way.
Gospel: Luke 1: 1-4; 4: 14-21
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a narration of the things that have been accomplished among us, according as they have delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word: It seemed good to me also, having diligently attained to all things from the beginning, to write to you in order, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the verity of those words in which you have been instructed.
And Jesus returned in the power of the spirit, into Galilee: and the fame of him went out through the whole country. And he taught in their synagogues and was magnified by all.
And he came to Nazareth, where he was brought up: and he went into the synagogue, according to his custom, on the sabbath day: and he rose up to read. And the book of Isaiah the prophet was delivered unto him. And as he unfolded the book, he found the place where it was written: The spirit of the Lord is upon me. Wherefore he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, he has sent me to heal the contrite of heart, to preach deliverance to the captives and sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord and the day of reward.
And when he had folded the book, he restored it to the minister and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them: This day is fulfilled this scripture in your ears.
I am not at all a fan of what is commonly called ‘diversity,’ by which we mean creating arbitrary or out-of-date categories of people and then mandating that each have a representative to demonstrate our bona-fideles. For one thing, the days when a person’s views or background could be fairly estimated based on his ethnicity or religion are several decades in the past, for another the only reason such distinctions matter today at all is usually because someone is trying too hard to be ‘inclusive,’ and finally there’s the fact that these days we often use the desire to create a culturally diverse community as an excuse to squash differences rather than invite them.
I know what you’re thinking; “is there a point to your little rant?” (‘little’ may be replaced with ‘brilliant’ or ‘hateful’ depending on your own viewpoint). Well, kind of. It’s more or less what was running through my mind as I listened to St. Paul’s allegory of the body. It’s important, especially in these days of equality-gone-mad, to remember that different does not necessarily mean ‘unequal,’ nor does ‘equal’ mean ‘the same.’ A rich man is different from a poor man, but that doesn’t mean one is better than the other, or even that it is better to be one rather than the other. Men and women are very different and have different roles to play, but that doesn’t mean one is superior to the other.
You see, we today have fallen into the absurd idea that unless someone has the exact same opportunities to play the exact same roles as someone else, then one side or the other is being treated unfairly. Paul reminds us that we each have our own role to play, and that we shouldn’t waste time trying to play someone else’s role, however attractive it may look to us. It may seem unfair to the nose that it has to endure snot and mucus and being the butt of innumerable jokes, while the eye is praised and cared for without ever having to deal with boogers. But, upon reflection, the nose would probably make a terrible eye, and at least this way it doesn’t have to endure That One Scene in Zombie (those who don’t know what I’m talking about, you probably should be grateful).
The important thing isn’t whether you have one role or another, the important thing is how you perform that role. If God decrees that you should be poor, you can be a poor Saint. If He decrees you are a woman, you need to be a Saintly woman. If you are an ear, you need to be a clear, sensitive, and wax-free receptor. In short, there is no situation, no circumstance that can prevent you from becoming a Saint.
Friday, January 25, 2013
This week’s Famous Catholic marks our first foray into the sporting world (not really my thing) with what is hands-down the most inspiring world heavyweight champion of all time: James J. Braddock; the Cinderella Man.
Catholic Credentials: Cradle Irish-Catholic; happily married for 44 years
Nerd Credentials: Heavyweight champion of the world from 1935-1936 (okay, kind of stretching the ‘nerd’ thing, but it's really cool nonetheless).
In the 1920s and 30s, boxing was king. Almost literally; the Heavyweight Champion of the World was one of the most famous men on Earth (to the point that when contender Louis Angel Firpo met Calvin Coolidge, President of the United States, it was the boxer who had to be told whom he had just shaken hands with). Jack Dempsey was pulling down almost a million dollars a fight, at a time when Lou Gherig, the best paid player in baseball, was making less than half that a season. Boxing was far and away the most popular sport of the time. Not only did it present a unique spectacle and drama, but it was one of the few sports that was open to everyone: Irish, Jewish, Polish, Black, Indian, Italian; anyone could box. As a matter of fact, boxing was one of the most viable ways for recent immigrants and minorities to acquire wealth and prominence at the time. Boxing was the most Catholic of all sports.
In 1929, one of the most promising up-and-coming contenders for the Heavyweight crown was a big, quiet Irishman named James “Jimmy” Braddock. A slow, powerful puncher with a deadly right hook (he had broken aspiring champ Pete Latzo’s jaw in four places with one blow), Braddock had been slowly working his way up through the heavyweight and light-heavyweight divisions (he had a lot of trouble keeping weight on, which meant he vacillated between the two divisions). His frequent high-profile wins had earned him a comfortable fortune, which, at a friend’s suggestion, he partially invested in a taxi-cab company. Financially secure, poised to become the most famous and well-paid athlete in the world, and engaged to the woman of his heart, Jimmy Braddock had achieved the American Dream.
The child of Anglo-Irish immigrants (Irish who were born and raised in England), Jimmy was the youngest and biggest of seven children. Growing up in New Jersey, his favorite pastime was fighting; with his brothers, with his classmates, or just with anyone who was game. The sisters who ran his parochial school generally let the boys fight; they only intervened when it looked like one of them was actually going to get seriously hurt. Which, indeed, happened to one boy whom Jimmy fought; he ended up unconscious for half-an-hour while the sisters called an ambulance and eleven-year-old Jimmy was left wondering whether he had actually killed someone. Fortunately, the boy recovered and the sisters came to an agreement with Jimmy’s father that he had probably had enough formal education to be getting on with.
After leaving school, Jimmy went to work as a Western Union messenger. It was while working in this capacity that, one day, he happened upon a crowd of men hovering around a shop radio. They were listening to the famous Jack Dempsey-Jess Willard fight of 1919, in which Dempsey took the Heavyweight title. Jimmy was so enthralled by the fight that he completely forgot about the rest of his rounds.
This incident hooked him on boxing as a fan, but he didn’t consider it as a career until he got into a fight with his brother, Joe, over a sweater that Jimmy had borrowed. Joe, who was an up-and-coming professional boxer, fought his younger brother for over an hour until the police finally (reluctantly) broke up the fight. Jimmy had absorbed all the blows his older, trained brother could through at him, and no one could decide who actually won the fight.
Following a period of sulking in which the two brothers weren’t speaking to each other, Joe agreed to help Jimmy enter the boxing world. During his amateur stage, while Joe (whose own boxing career had faltered) served as his manager, Braddock was working out at the local gym when professional manager and former fighter Jim Gould spotted him. Thinking the skinny Irishman would be an easy mark for his own fighter, Harry Galfund, whom he had plans to sell and wanted to look good for some investors, Gould invited Braddock to fight Galfund. To Gould’s slight horror, Braddock destroyed Galfund right in front of his would-be investors. Gould managed the sale (though for considerably less than he had hoped for) and immediately approached Braddock to be his manager. Thus began a remarkable partnership: the small, ostentatious, chatty Jew and the big, modest, quiet Irishman were not only a powerful boxing team, but also became inseparable friends.
Together, they began to rise through the ranks. Braddock began his career with a string of victories, then hit a brief rough patch before surging back with brutal upsets against heavy favorites Pete Latzo and Tuffy Griffiths (Griffiths had won over fifty consecutive matches at that point, was a 7-1 favorite, and outweighed Braddock by a considerable margin. Braddock knocked him out in the second round). From there, Braddock proceeded all the way up to challenging the Light Heavyweight champion; Tommy Loughran on the eighteenth of July, 1929.
That’s when it all went wrong.
Loughran was a light, quick fighter. His nickname was “the Phantom of Philly,” due to his skill at dodging and footwork. Braddock was a glacial pounder: his footwork was nearly non-existent, and his whole style relied upon his huge right hand. Loughran made Braddock look like a complete amateur; he handily defeated the Irishman in a fifteen-round decision. Braddock, unable to land a punch, was reduced to goading the other fighter to bring him in range. Loughran, a consummate professional, was unimpressed and didn’t take the bait.
The fight with Loughran sapped Braddock’s confidence. From then on, he was only just able to hold onto his career. He lost the next two fights, won one, and then lost the next three in a row.
At almost the exact same time as Braddock’s career faltered, the United States was plunged into the depths of the Great Depression. Like Braddock, America had relied too heavily on an unreliable set of resources though in her case it was credit and the stock market rather than a right-hook. Unprepared, with money apparently evaporating everywhere, the country fell into poverty.
Braddock, who had recently married his sweetheart, Mae Fox, found his accumulated fortune, won in the punishing hours he spent in the ring, was vanishing before his eyes. His taxi-cab company, which, with his sinking boxing career he had intended to turn his whole attention to, was failing fast. The banks in which he had invested his winnings failed. The $20,000 he had saved up via his frugal, modest lifestyle simply disappeared.
To make matters worse, his right hand, his one weapon, was giving him problems. It kept getting hurt. During one fight, he broke it against his opponent’s face. Never one to complain, needing to save every penny he could, and fearing the loss of more fights, he kept quiet. Finally, Gould talked him into seeing a doctor, who informed him that the hand now needed to be re-broken and set properly; a procedure that would cost some $1400. Braddock, unable to gather that much money to save his life, suggested that he simply take another fight and try to break his hand then. The doctor, amazingly, agreed, and Braddock proceeded to purposefully break his own hand in his next fight, allowing the doctor to set it properly.
Nevertheless, the sore hand continued to bother him, and his career slipped further and further into obscurity. His record before the Loughran fight was 35 wins, 5 loses, 6 draws. By the time 1933 rolled around, it was 44-22-7. And things were only getting worse. He was humiliatingly disqualified from his first fight of 1933 for ‘not trying’ (he had broken his ribs in a car accident days before, and his right hand still hadn’t healed). His fights were getting rarer and rarer. He even began to think he was jinxed. Finally, he ended his dying career in a humiliating no-contest (his third. One was enough to end a career) with the newcomer Abe Feldman, during which he broke his right hand yet again. And this time, he wasn’t going to be able to fix it.
Braddock was done. He returned to his dressing room and cried. When he was done, he announced his retirement from boxing, but no one really noticed or cared. As far as the boxing world was concerned, Jimmy Braddock’s career ended the night he lost to Tommy Loughran.
The problem was that Braddock couldn’t do much but box. He never even attended high school, and his marketable skills were limited. Plus, with a quarter of the whole country out of work, no one was going to waste their time hiring a washed-up, uneducated, failed boxer.
But, with a growing family to provide for, Braddock didn’t have a lot of options. Every morning he walked 3 miles down to the docks of Weehawken and Hoboken to see if there was work to be had. If there was, he spent the day unloading railroad ties and didn’t leave until the foreman told him to. A double-shift meant double pay, and fatigue was for sissies. If, as often happened, there was no work, he walked another 2 miles to West New York to see if there was work on those docks. If there wasn’t, he’d go home, looking for odd jobs like shoveling snow on the way. In this way, he frequently walked 10-12 miles a day looking for a way to feed his wife and kids.
Meanwhile, his busted hand mended slowly, but he was forced to use his weak left to pick up the heavy bales and tiles. When even his time on the docks couldn’t keep the bills paid, and with the threat of having his milk, electricity, and water shut off, he went on Welfare. To Jimmy, Welfare was the final humiliation; the admission that he couldn’t care for his family on his own. He told only a very few close friends about it, and carefully kept a record of how much he took out. If and when prosperity found him again, he vowed, he would pay it all back.
Braddock knew he was finished as a boxer, but Gould didn’t. Despite Jimmy’s suggestion that he find himself a different fighter to back, Gould remained loyal to his friend. Even after all Braddock’s defeats, in midst of all his poverty, Gould continued to try to get him a fight. He would tell anyone who would listen about he time Braddock had broken Pete Latzo’s jaw, or taken down the storied Tuffy Griffiths. Every fight promoter in the city knew Gould’s speech, and most had fallen asleep to it at one point or another.
And one day, after nine months of unemployment, bread lines, welfare, and hungry kids, Gould finally had something. The Heavyweight Champion of the World, Primo Carnera, was about to defend his title against a charismatic westerner named Max Baer, and they needed someone to open for the title bout; a preliminary round to help get the crowd excited. For that, they knew exactly whom they wanted: a rough, ex-soldier named Corn Griffin who had been one of Carnera’s sparring partners and who had made the huge-yet-untalented Carnera look ridiculous in training. Griffin was a favorite as a Heavyweight contender, and his handlers wanted someone weak, unknown, and easily beaten for Griffin to show off on.
Of course, since they were being so upfront about it, the promoters were having a lot of trouble convincing any to actually sign up for it. None of the high profile fighters would touch it, and none of the up-and-comers wanted to sacrifice themselves to Griffin’s glory.
Only one fighter in New York was both desperate enough and brave enough to even try; Jimmy Braddock. Gould had been badgering the promoters every chance he got, and, when he heard they were looking for a fighter, he jumped at the opportunity. Reluctantly, they agreed.
Gould tracked Jimmy down, laboring on the docks, and clapped a hand on his shoulder saying “Well, champ, I’ve got a fight for you.”
Braddock only had two days to prepare. But at 29, after walking 10-12 miles a day and hours of lifting heavy bales and railroad tiles, he was in the best shape of his life. When he walked out into the ring against the formidable Griffin, Braddock, thinking about all the hell he had had to endure over the past few years, came in roaring. In three brutal rounds, he pummeled Griffin with both hands, moved more gracefully than he ever had, and thrashed the promising would-be-contender so badly that the ref stopped the fight.
No one could believe what they were seeing. Not only was Braddock supposed to be all washed up, but even in his heyday as a champion he had never fought like that. His left hand, previously an almost useless weapon, was now at least as powerful as his right. His footwork, which had been almost non-existent, was at least passable. Moreover, he brought with him the raw hunger of a man on the rise, a man fighting to put food on his family’s table. After nine months of grinding poverty, despair, and struggle, Braddock had reemerged as a completely new – and formidable – fighter.
Four months later, Gould secured another fight against John Henry Lewis, followed by another against Art Lasky. Both Lewis and Lasky were dangerous, prominent fighters. Braddock trounced both of them, breaking Lasky’s nose in the process.
After the Lewis fight, Braddock went to the welfare office for one last time. But this time, it wasn’t to ask for anything. Instead, he gave back every cent he ever received during those long months on welfare. And now was about to face the chance of the lifetime.
The night that Braddock fought Griffin, Primo Carnera lost his title to Max Baer. Baer was about as different from Braddock as was possible. Braddock was Irish, Baer was Jewish. Braddock came from the city, Baer gained his muscles working on his parents’ farm. Braddock grew up fighting, Baer never threw a punch in anger until he was seventeen (he and his friends had been swiping swill when the moonshiner caught them). Braddock was famously quiet and modest, Baer was famous joker and self-promoter. And while the Depression plunged Braddock into poverty, as far as Baer was concerned there might not have been a Depression at all.
Baer was a formidable opponent. His punches packed incredible power; they were literally deadly. He inadvertently killed an early opponent named Frankie Campbell when the referee failed to notice how viciously he was attacking. Despite this, Baer was a gentle soul outside the ring. The Campbell fight haunted him his whole life; he donated a number of his purses to Campbell’s wife and children, whom he had sat with in the hospital while Campbell lingered.
Now Braddock was about to challenge the “Livermore Butcher Boy” for the most lucrative prize in all of sports. In preparation, Braddock secluded himself in “Homicide Hall” as the press called it: a private gym in the Catskill Mountains where he, Gould, and his trainer worked rigorously to prepare for the bout. He pushed himself furiously; running ten miles a day, boxing with the toughest sparring partners Gould could throw at him, and keeping to a brutal diet. The result was that he packed on over ten pounds of pure punching power. Baer, meanwhile, dithered away much of his training time by goofing off and mugging for his fans. He didn’t consider Braddock to be much of an opponent, with his age and earlier troubles.
Baer expected Braddock, like most fighters, to be cautious at first. Instead Braddock, still thinking about his family and the poverty they had endured, came out swinging. He took everything the fearsome Baer could through at him (to Baer’s astonishment: no one had ever stood up to his punches like that before), and pummeled the Butcher Boy in fifteen punishing rounds. As with Griffin, Braddock was picked specifically to be an easy fight for Baer. He went in facing odds of 10-1. He walked out the Heavyweight Champion of the World.
His financial woes were over, and the public, who had seen themselves in the scrappy old fighter, adored him. He and Mae moved the kids out of their cold basement apartment into a new house in North Bergen, New Jersey where they lived for the rest of their lives.
Braddock was one of the most popular Heavyweight Champions in history, but he only kept the title for one year. A powerful young fighter from Detroit named Joe Louis, who like Braddock embodied the hopes and aspirations of a generation, first destroyed a disheartened Max Baer, then took on the reigning champ. Braddock took a savage beating, but refused to let Gould stop the fight until he was knocked out in the eighth round. Louis and Braddock remained on friendly terms for the rest of their lives (Braddock was the only fighter whom Louis would call 'champ').
When WWII broke out, Braddock and Gould both enlisted, and both achieved the rank of 1st Lieutenant. Braddock ended his service honorably, but Gould was court martialed for accepting bribes and was discharged before the war ended. When he got home, Braddock signed on with a contracting company operating heavy machinery, a job he loved and which, late in life, he used to help build the Verrazano Bridge. He died in 1974 at the age of 64.
Braddock remains a legend in the fighting world, not for his skill or power (he was only moderately talented at his best, and both Baer and Lewis packed more raw power than he did) but for the incredible story of his life, and the unfailing determination he showed both in and out of the ring. He serves as an example of how far a man can push himself to care for his family, and how God never abandons us, even in our darkest hours.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
There was an old man on the island of Crete who was beloved by all. He ministered to the poor, he loved his children and his grandchildren, and he never missed Mass once. People would call on him to settle their disputes, rather than the magistrates, because they knew he would always come up with a just and generous compromise that would make everyone happy. They would come to him for advice, or simply to tell him of their troubles, because he was always ready with a sympathetic ear and some gentle wisdom.
But their love for him was exceeded only by his love for them. To him, every neighbor was a brother or sister, for they all lived on his beloved Crete. In his youth he had fought for Crete, and now that he was old every stone, every tree was precious to him.
When the old man lay dying, all the island mourned for him, but he blessed them and said “Do not weep for me, for I am going to my Lord, but lay me in my beloved Crete.” And, taking a fistful of the soil of his island in his hand, he died.
He immediately found himself at the Gates of Heaven, with St. Peter waiting to welcome him with a smile, saying “come, good and faithful servant, and take your reward.” The old man started to go forward, but as he was about to pass the gates he found he couldn’t move. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t pass the gates.
“Well, that’s odd,” said Peter. “Did you bring anything with you?”
“Yes,” said the old man. “I have the soil of my beloved Crete in my hand.”
“Oh, I’m afraid we don’t allow you to bring anything in,” said Peter. “You’ll have to leave it behind.”
“WHAT?” cried the old man. “I can’t do that! This is Crete! This is my home, my island, which I love!”
“I’m sorry,” said Peter. “But those are the rules: no baggage or souvenirs of any kind. Please dispose of it in the receptacle provided.”
“Never!” said the old man. “I won’t leave my beloved Crete behind! Never! Heaven would not be Heaven to me if I couldn’t have Crete!”
And the old man sat down the steps to Heaven, folded his arms, and would not budge.
Peter sighed, and called it in. St. Paul came out and started yelling at the man, telling him he was an idiot for choosing Earthly affections over the glory of Heaven. This, oddly enough, didn’t accomplish much except to make the old man more obstinate. Then St. Thomas Aquinas came out to explain why and how the glories of Heaven outweigh any possible joys that the man could have had on Crete, but the old man had never had much education and barely understood a word of what he said.
Finally, St. Peter called the Blessed Mother and said “we have this old man who simply refuses to let go of his native soil, and if we don’t get him to before long, he’s going to lose his reward. Can you talk to him, because we are at our wit’s end over here!”
So, Mary came out and sat down next to the old man of Crete. He glanced at her, then returned to his haughty glaring into space.
“What’s that?” she asked, indicating the hand that held the soil.
“That is Crete,” he said stiffly. “It’s what I loved most in all the world, what inspired all my piety and good works, the one thing I can’t live without.”
“Oh,” she said, nodding in understanding. “That sounds wonderful. Can I see?”
He hesitated, then reluctantly opened his hand to show her. By this point, the soil had lost all its moisture and was little more than dust.
“That just looks like dirt to me,” she said. “Why don’t you let it go?”
The old man looked at her, then at the dust in his hand. Slowly, painfully, he turned his hand over and let the dust fall out.
Mary smiled, took him by the hand, and led him through the gates.
And the old man of Crete, as he finally gazed upon Heaven, stopped as though stricken.
“This is Crete!”
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Scripture Readings: The Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isaiah 62: 1-5
For Sion's sake I will not hold my peace, and for the sake of Jerusalem, I will not rest till her just one come forth as brightness, and her saviour be lighted as a lamp. And the Gentiles shall see your just one, and all kings your glorious one: and you shall be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name. And you shall be a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be called Forsaken: and your land shall no more be called Desolate: but you shall be called My pleasure in her, and your land inhabited. Because the Lord has been well pleased with you: and your land shall be inhabited. For the young man shall dwell with the virgin, and your children shall dwell in you. And the bridegroom shall rejoice over the bride, and your God shall rejoice over you.
Second Reading: First Corinthians 12: 4-11
Now there are diversities of graces, but the same Spirit. And there are diversities of ministries but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but the same God, who works all in all. And the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man unto profit. To one indeed, by the Spirit, is given the word of wisdom: and to another, the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit: To another, faith in the same spirit: to another, the grace of healing in one Spirit: To another the working of miracles: to another, prophecy: to another, the discerning of spirits: to another, diverse kinds of tongues: to another, interpretation of speeches. But all these things, one and the same Spirit works, dividing to every one according as he will.
Gospel: John 2: 1-11
And the third day, there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee: and the mother of Jesus was there. And Jesus also was invited, and his disciples, to the marriage. And the wine failing, the mother of Jesus said to him: They have no wine. And Jesus says to her: Woman, what is that to me and to you? My hour is not yet come. His mother says to the waiters: Whatsoever he shall say to you, do. Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three measures apiece. Jesus says to them: Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And Jesus says to them: Draw out now and carry to the chief steward of the feast. And they carried it. And when the chief steward had tasted the water made wine and knew not whence it was, but the waiters knew who had drawn the water: the chief steward calls the bridegroom, and said to him: Every man at first sets forth good wine, and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse. But you have kept the good wine until now. This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
Back into Ordinary time at last (okay, so it actually started last week), we find ourselves in what I consider to be one of the more comedic Gospel stories. In any case, I find it amusing, in a ‘profound, inspired-by-the-Holy-Spirit’ kind of way. There’s the way Jesus apparently dismisses Mary’s concern about the wine, only for her to turn around and tell the waiters that He’ll do something about it. Then Jesus responds by making a ludicrously oversized surplus of wine.
Whatever else, I think this story clinches the fact that Jesus has a sense of humor.
In all seriousness, there is a lot going on here, especially regarding Mary. In the first case, it’s interesting that (despite what I said above) Jesus never actually dismisses Mary’s concerns, and, even more interesting, Mary never asks Him to do anything. She merely appraises Him of the situation and lets Him proceed as He sees fit. What we have here is a glimpse of two people who understand each other perfectly. All Mary has to do is tell Him what the situation is, and she knows that He will do something about it. Moreover, she takes steps to ‘prepare the way’ for Him to work. It’s actually a remarkably clever move; she doesn’t give the waiters any specific instructions, since she doesn’t know what, if anything, her Son is going to do. Instead, she simply tells them to “do whatever He tells you.” She trusts that He is going to do something, but she doesn’t try to direct Him in anyway.
Jesus, for His part, responds with a question: “Woman, what is that to me and you? My hour has not yet come.”
First of all, it’s interesting that Jesus frames the issue as a communal one (“what is that to me and you”). In so doing, He includes Mary in His ministry and purpose (“my hour”). That is to say, He implies that it is a ‘team effort’ so to speak.
Now, this does two things; first and most obviously, it points to Mary’s own role in salvation as to bearer of Christ, not only literally, as His mother, but also spiritually, as seen when she directs the servers to Him (the servers otherwise would have no reason at all to look for help to one of the guests). Secondly, it speaks to the communal aspect of the Church. Jesus expects us, like Mary, to be ‘part of the team’ as it were; that our concerns should be His, and His ours. The Church, we see (as outlined more concretely elsewhere), is a team; a squad. It’s essentially communal in nature, both between each individual and Jesus and between individual Christians.
Moving on, Jesus says that “My hour has not yet come.” Now, this implies that He was not yet ready to begin His public ministry, but He does so anyway. So, it seems that that wasn’t what He meant by “my hour.” Rather, I think it refers to His Passion, which is, obviously, the most important moment of His ministry.
So why would a mere question about wine lead Him to refer to His Passion? Because of the wine. Jesus’ Passion will one day be made manifest in wine (and bread, but that doesn’t come up here). What Jesus is saying here is, basically, “it isn’t the time for the true wine that I will give them, namely my blood for their salvation. But, that they may believe, I will give them ordinary wine.”
Related to that, the phrase “me and you” in this context takes on yet another meaning; the wine that Jesus will eventually give them is His blood, but it is Mary’s blood as well. I’ll delve more into this point in a later post, but, briefly, since Mary was Jesus’ mother, and since He had no earthly father, genetically they would have been identical. Hence, the blood that flows in His veins, which He will offer as wine, is the exact same blood that flows in her veins as well. So, when Jesus says “what is that to me and you,” He is also saying “they can’t have the wine which is our blood yet.”
Vive Christus Rex!
Vive Christus Rex!
Friday, January 18, 2013
Sorry; I've had a fairly exhausting week, and the Famous Catholic I originally had planned turned out to require more research than I was able to do in time, so we'll be missing this week.
Famous Catholic Fridays will resume next week as scheduled.
Famous Catholic Fridays will resume next week as scheduled.
Monday, January 14, 2013
They say the best way to learn something is to teach it, so today I’m going to talk about something I’ve been trying to get into my head for a long time. It’s a very simple fact that everyone knows, nobody likes to hear, and that most people try to ignore (to their peril). Five small words:
Morbid, says you? Properly motivating says I.
In the first place, it really does seem odd that we’re so reluctant to talk about death. It’s the one thing in the world that we can be sure to have in common with whomever we are talking to. Plop me down in a meeting of the Lesbian Black Panthers’ Association of Yale and we’ll probably have zero common ground…except that we’re all going to die.
So, now you know what to say at your next Christmas Party if you’re ever looking for a good topic of conversation:
But my point here is not to give you tips on being a conversationalist (clearly I’m the last person in the world who should be advising you on that). My point is that death is something inevitable. Even your evil schemes to drain the life essence from virgins to ensure your own immortality is doomed to failure, since sooner or later either one of those virgins or her boyfriend is going to take you down. Same thing with any other plan you care to name: your horcruxes will get destroyed by those meddling kids, the Lazarus Pits will become unstable and explode, and universal healthcare will quickly run out of money and become the exclusive province of the wealthy and political elite.
In short, if you try to fight the fact that you will die, you are going to lose. “Death,” as St. Justin Martyr reminds us, “is a debt which must, in all events, be paid.”
So, if you can’t beat Death, why not turn him into an ally? When humanity accepted that it couldn’t kill Godzilla, they discovered that he could be just as powerful as a protective force as he was as a destructive one. When Darth Vader discovered how strong Luke Skywalker was, his first instinct wasn’t to kill him, but to turn him. A powerful enemy makes for an equally powerful ally (unless you’re playing an RPG, in which case he’ll be de-powered to equal the other party members the instant he switches sides…but I digress).
How can you make Death your ally? Simple. Accept the fact that you will die. It’s going to happen. One day you’ll be a nice skeleton lying in the ground (or, if you’re really lucky, sitting pretty on an anthropologist’s shelf with a label and a ‘please do not touch’ sign). Alternatively, you’ll be a pile of ashes drifting in the wind. It might happen in a hundred years, it might happen today, as you read this (though hopefully not before you finish). In any case, you are going to die; get used to the idea.
What all this boils down to is that if you accept that you will die, the idea will become a whole lot less odious to you (unless you’re an atheist, in which case…you might want to work on that). You’ll start to consider what will happen next, meaning that your plan to just ‘try to be good’ or ‘take care of religion later’ suddenly starts to sound a whole lot stupider. You’ll start to actually live rather than simply planning to live.
See, by acknowledging that you will die, you realize that your ‘life’ is not some future prospect which you are preparing for; it’s here and now. At the moment, your life involves reading this post. Your life is whatever you are doing right now, not what you are planning to do in the future.
There is the saying “time is money.” That is false. Time is much, much more than money. All the money that ever has or ever will existed in the world, including the imaginary stuff the government is using right now, cannot buy a single instant of time. Nor is time guaranteed to anyone. Every plan, every intention we make is a gamble; we’re betting that we will have the time to do it. We’re wagering the time we have now against the time we think we will have in the future. Sometimes the gamble pays off, sometimes it doesn’t.
So, what do you do? Simple; you lower the odds. You do it now. What is it that you are planning, hoping to accomplish in your life? Whatever it is, start doing it. If you can’t just go off and begin, start preparing. Commit yourself to it. This, right here, right now, is your life. This is what will be written about in your obituary. This is what you will find yourself giving an account to God for.
“Uh, well...I hooked up with a lot of girls…can’t remember all their names. I, um, played a lot of Halo, and I sat in cubicle for forty years filling out TPS reports, but I never got married because I didn’t want to be tied down, so…I guess that’s about it…oh, yeah! I saw Angkor Watt once!”
“Okay, God; l started out with nothing but some paper, a job I loathed, and a woman I loved. Committing all this to your Will, I quit my job, married the girl, and started a ministry spreading your word to the people who needed it. That’s after my time in the Marine Corps, where I fought on two continents and learned the true meaning of courage and honor. Now, let me start by telling you about my wife, because she’s really the best part…
Second one has a lot more punch doesn’t it?
I sometimes picture God as a literary critic judging the stories we live. Sometimes He’ll say “I was gripped from the moment you were conceived until that final breath, and I couldn’t wait to read it again! Five stars: an author to watch!” Other times He’ll say “The story was gripping, but its ideas and themes were so off base, so revolting, that I simply could not enjoy the experience. I appreciate the effort and talent involved, but I cannot recommend it. Two stars.” And for the unlucky few, He’ll say “This was the most boring tripe I have ever had the misfortune to suffer through. It got so that the only moments you showed any kind of life at all were when you sinned, but even then you lacked anything that could by any definition be called individuality or passion. Your life was a mind-numbing slog of bland, occasionally disgusting junk and a blasphemous rebuke to me, as your Creator, for wasting the effort. No stars.”
Here’s the thing; I’m all in favor of ‘Bucket Lists,’ but the trouble is that far too many of them read like just a random collection of the same old experiences: “Skydive, climb Kilomanjaro, visit Taj Mahal, compete in Iron Man…” Boring! Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those, but come on; do you think when you’re dying and about to see God you’re going to be saying “well, at least I ran that marathon; that means my life had meaning.” No, what will matter more than that is the people you’ve loved and the lives you’ve touched. What will matter is what you’ve done to serve God and lead people to Heaven. Something my pastor keeps saying is that the first question we’ll be asked at the gates to Heaven is “did you bring anyone with you?”
My point here, ultimately, is that by remembering your death, you ought to find yourself focusing on two things: the here and now (which is the only moment you are guaranteed), and the moment after you die, when you will have to render an account. God won’t care how many marathons you’ve run, or how many mountains you’ve climbed; He’ll want to know how the world was better off for your existence. He’ll say to you “I gave you existence. I formed you in the womb. I preserved your life for X number of years. I gave you a functioning body and a rational mind. I gave you a world of people to love and things to use. Now, what did you do with all that?”
In conclusion, I shall allow Country Music star Tim McGraw to sum up the entire article in song.
Vive Christus Rex!
First Reading: Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7
Behold my servant, I will uphold him: my elect, my soul delights in him: I have given my spirit upon him, he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not cry, nor have respect to person, neither shall his voice be heard abroad. The bruised reed he shall not break, and smoking flax he shall not quench, he shall bring forth judgment unto truth. He shall not be sad, nor troublesome, till he set judgment in the earth, and the islands shall wait for his law.
I the Lord have called you in justice, and taken you by the hand, and preserved you. And I have given you for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles: That you might open the eyes of the blind, and bring forth the prisoner out of prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.
Second Reading: Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7
For the grace of God our Saviour has appeared to all men: Instructing us, that, denying ungodliness and worldly desires, we should live soberly and justly and godly in this world, looking for the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ. Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity and might cleanse to himself a people acceptable, a pursuer of good works.
But when the goodness and kindness of God our Saviour appeared: Not by the works of justice which we have done, but according to his mercy, he saved us, by the laver of regeneration and renovation of the Holy Ghost. Whom he has poured forth upon us abundantly, through Jesus Christ our Saviour: That, being justified by his grace, we may be heirs according to hope of life everlasting.
Gospel: Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
And as the people were of opinion, and all were thinking in their hearts of John, that perhaps he might be the Christ. John answered, saying unto all: "I indeed baptize you with water; but there shall come one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to loose. He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire;”
Now it came to pass, when all the people were baptized, that Jesus also being baptized and praying, heaven was opened. And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape, as a dove, upon him. And a voice came from heaven: You are my beloved Son. In you I am well pleased.
This week’s reading posses a great mystery; Jesus Christ, who neither did, nor could commit a sin, steps forward to be baptized for repentance.
But the emphasis this time around is not on the seeming-contradiction of why Jesus came forward (that is explored in Matthew’s Gospel), but on the meaning of what happened. John says that Jesus will baptize “with the Holy Spirit.” Then, after Jesus is baptized, “Heaven was opened and the Holy spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”
There’s a lot to take home here. For one thing, John explicitly says that Jesus will baptize ‘with the Holy Spirit,’ clearly indicating that he, John, cannot do that. So, when the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus following his baptism, what is happening there is that Jesus is perfecting John’s baptism by adding the crucial ‘ingredient’ of the Holy Spirit.
This is interesting; we talk a lot about how Jesus sanctified human life by taking it on, and how by His specific actions He made especially holy certain events or stages of life: i.e. He sanctified marriage both by declaring it to be ordained by God and by His presence at the wedding feast at Cana. Now, baptism wasn’t, at this point, a typical experience of human life, but the importance of the Sacrament is underlined in the fact that this is one of those times that the sanctification of the event is illustrated by visual and audible signs. The Holy Spirit descends upon Christ and, at the same time, the site of the baptism. Thus the Holy Spirit has been added to the process of baptism, sanctifying and perfecting the process.
There’s also the line “Heaven was opened.” We believe, as Christians, that Baptism is the path to Heaven; no one enters Heaven without first being Baptized (look for a future post on how this does not necessarily exclude non-Christians). Now, John’s baptism did not have the power to save; he admitted as much himself. It was divinely ordained, and was for the repentance of sin, but it could not itself let anyone enter Heaven. When Jesus passes through, however, “Heaven is opened.” Baptism is given a salvific character by Christ’s actions.
Finally, Christ’s baptism and the subsequent opening of Heaven foreshadows His passion and resurrection. Baptism is a symbol of resurrection; the subject enters the waters as if entering a tomb and re-emerges with new life. Water itself is a means to death and life: we drown if we remain underneath it, but nothing on Earth can survive without it (thus, the salvific nature of baptism, of water, is foreshadowed in the very nature of life itself). When Christ enters the ‘tomb’ of the Jordan River, He is anticipating the tomb that He will enter after Calvary, when Heaven will once again be opened.
At the beginning and end of His public ministry, therefore, Jesus opens Heaven to us. Heaven being ‘opened’ is the result of His presence and work on Earth, and so is heralded by this very earliest event in His public life. From the moment Jesus enters the stage, Heaven has begun to open.
Vive Christus Rex!
Friday, January 11, 2013
This week’s famous Catholic is another actor; Sir Alec Guinness.
Catholic Credentials: Converted to Catholicism at the age of 42, preceded by his son and followed by his wife; remained a devout Communicant for the rest of his life.
Nerd Credentials: He’s Obi-Wan frickin’ Kenobi! Also one of the finest actors of his generation and a skilled comedian.
It’s unfortunate that by far his most famous role was one he grew to hate, because Alec Guinness was one of the greatest actors of his generation, skilled both at stage and screen, drama and comedy. He also happened to become a Roman Catholic midway through his life’s journey, after considering being an Anglican Priest for a while.
His conversion began in a curious way: he was in France filming Father Brown a loose adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s short story The Blue Cross. Guinness played Father Brown, and, of course, was in full cassock. On his way to the set one day, a small French boy came running up calling “mon pere! Mon pere!” and seized his hand. Unable to communicate to the boy that he wasn’t actually a priest (Guinness couldn’t speak French), he was obliged to simply smile and listen while the little boy chatted on and on while swinging from his hand. Finally, after a little ways, the boy piped “au revoir, mon pere!” and sped off.
Guinness, like most Englishman (and indeed, most Protestants), had been raised with certain prejudices against the Catholic Church; that it was secretive, aloof, sinister even. Yet, here was this little boy who, upon seeing a priest’s cassock, immediately took this man, whom he had never seen before, as someone to be trusted, confided in. It occurred to Guinness, walking along after the incident, that a Church that could inspire such an attitude in a child was not likely to be quite as grim and uncaring as he had been told. “Slowly,” he said. “I began to shake off my long-held prejudices.”
It was the turning point in Guinness’s life, this small little moment, far from the eyes of the audience, but quite a lot had happened in the meantime.
Alec Guinness de Cuffe was born on April 2nd, 1914, in London to Agnes Cuff. No one really knows who his father was. A Scottish banker named Andrew Geddes (who may or may not have been Guinness’s biological father, and whom he never met) paid for young Alec’s education. His mother wrote his last name into his birth certificate, while his father’s name was left blank. Alec had little relationship with his mother, nor she to him. He spent most of his time at school, and after he left he worked at an advertising agency. It was while working there that he discovered the theater, spending most of his small salary on tickets and quickly conceiving the dream to become an actor.
Somehow or other, Guinness scrapped together the money to pay for acting lessons before longg he had landed his first role in the play Libel at the Old King’s Theater, which got him accepted into the Fay Compton School of Acting, where his teacher told him that he had “absolutely no talent.” Fortunately for him, however, a rather more important person came to a different conclusion: Sir John Gielgud, widely considered the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation, saw great promise in young Guinness and cast him, at 22, as Osric in Gielgud’s production of Hamlet. The production, naturally, was a smashing success and Guinness had found his place in the acting world.
Gielgud continued to cast young Guinness in his plays, including as Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice, Ferdinand in The Tempest (opposite Gielgud himself as Prospero), and, most importantly, as Hamlet himself a mere two years after that first, fateful production.
While Guinness was soaking in the grandeur of the Shakespearean stage, however, he was, privately, making a study of his own. He enjoyed film and comedies, and in particular he admired the work of Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame. Quietly, and help along by the classical comedies he played in, Guinness honed the comedic talent that would serve him so well.
But, in the meantime, he also tried his hand at writing with a stage-adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations. Guinness himself forewent the lead role of Pip in favor of the part of Herbert Pocket; Pip’s friend and moral superior. The adaptation was remarkably well-done; capturing the essence of the novel while at the same time paring the massive tome down to a reasonable length and giving it an altered, more triumphant ending. It turned out to be perhaps the most important role of his career. In the audience that night was a literature-adverse filmmaker named David Lean, who had been dragged there by his wife. Lean was mesmerized by the story, and in particular was impressed by the pale young actor playing the pale young man.
However, whatever Lean’s plans they would have to wait. That very same year, German and Soviet tanks rolled into Poland, and Europe was once again plunged into war. Guinness, like all able-bodied young Englishmen, signed up. In his case, it was the Royal Navy, first as a seaman in 1941, then as an officer from 1942 onward. In this capacity, he commanded landing craft at Sicily, Elba, and Yugoslavia.
It seems also that around this time, no doubt brought on by the terror and death that surrounded him, that his religious feelings were awakened. So strong were they, in fact, that he considered leaving the stage he loved so much for God’s sake (as another famous actor during that same war would do). Yet, in the end, though he kept his love of God, he concluded that his place was on the stage rather than behind the pulpit.
The War wound down at last in 1945, with Guinness among the lucky ones who emerged alive and unscathed. And it was then that David Lean contacted the young actor with a proposition: he had been so struck by Dickens’s story that he was determined to adapt it for the screen, and he thought he couldn’t do much better than to start with Guinness’s own adaptation for the stage. What’s more, he wanted Guinness to reprise his role from the stage.
Guinness was eager to pass his play on to the capable director and his writing team, but he was less enthusiastic by the prospect of acting in front of the camera. He had only been in one film before, as an extra, and hadn’t liked it much. The camera made him nervous, and he found his costume uncomfortable. Nevertheless, a consummate professional, he mastered his own discomfort and delivered a perfectly fine performance with his limited screen-time.
As his success on the stage had been first ensured by Shakespeare, so his success on screen was the work of Charles Dickens. Following the critical and commercial success of Great Expectations (including Oscar nominations both for Best Picture and for the screenplay), Guinness was cast as Fagin in Lean’s follow-up adaptation of Oliver Twist (1948). It was here that he had his first change to truly demonstrate his talents as a character actor with a strong, eccentric turn as the famed Jewish pick-pocket (indeed, the performance was accused by some of anti-Semitism).
But though he had received acclaim for both his performances, Guinness didn’t really hit his stride until he found himself cast in director Robert Hamer’s black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which he played no less than eight distinct characters (including a woman), all of whom were murdered over the course of the film. The comedic skill he had developed early in his career had paid off, and now he took a string of dark comedies: The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), about a meek banker who hatches a scheme to steal a million pounds worth of gold, The Man in the White Suit (1951) about an inventor who creates a fabric that is impossible to get dirty, sparking the wrath of the manufacturing world, and The Ladykillers (1955) about a gang of thieves who have unexpected difficulty murdering a little old woman.
It was in the middle of these dark, occasionally alarming roles that Guinness took his fateful part in Father Brown (1954); an unusual turn for him, hearkening back to his first performance as the gentle Herbert in Great Expectations more than his grimly comedic roles of the intervening years. But more important than the film itself (which is, by most accounts, mediocre both in itself, and as an adaptation) was what happened during the filming, which changed him forever. Two years after this production, Guinness was received into the Catholic Church. His beloved wife, Merula, joined him a year later. The two of them remained faithful communicants for the rest of their lives.
In the meantime, he continued his stage career, which he much preferred. In 1955, Queen Elizabeth II, in recognition of his contributions to the arts, dubbed him Commander of the British Empire. Four years later, he was knighted.
Between these honors, David Lean approached him with another role; as a proud British Commander in a Japanese prisoner of war camp whose attempts to make things better for his men leads him, by degrees, into complicity with the enemy. The film, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is today considered one of the finest English-language films ever made. Guinness, for his part, received the Academy Award.
Lean and Guinness didn’t like each other much. Nevertheless, Lean considered Guinness his “good-luck charm.” After his soaring success in The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Lean cast Guinness in his subsequent epics: Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dr. Zhivago (1965), both of which met with success very nearly as, or more spectacular as River Kwai. All in all, he would appear in six films with Lean, all of which met with success to a greater or lesser extent.
Despite these successes, and his continued work on the London stage, Guinness’s popularity as a film actor was in decline. As he grew older, roles became more and more scarce, as producers looked elsewhere.
Then, one day, while working on another film, someone passed him a script by an enthusiastic young artist by the name of George Lucas. Though he didn’t care much for science-fiction or what he called “fairy-tale rubbish,” he was impressed by Lucas’s work on American Graffiti (1973), and he appreciated the story’s strong moral center. He agreed to meet the young director, and after a lunch-interview he decided he liked the man, intense and incomprehensible as he found him. Moreover, he found the story compelling, despite being science-fiction, and he predicted the film would be a hit, opting to take 2% of the box office in lieu of a flat salary.
Guinness’s experience on the film was not a particularly happy one. He found the dialogue excruciatingly poor and difficult. He was by far the oldest and most experienced actor on the set most of the time (his fellow British thespian, Peter Cushing, was also on hand, but they had no scenes together). Nevertheless, he was, as always, professional, and his fellow actors held him in awe, working twice as hard (and not goofing off) whenever he was on set.
Most everyone involved in the film expected Star Wars (1977) to be a failure. Guinness was one of the handful of people who expected a success. But he could never have imagined the sheer magnitude of the film’s triumph. It was more than just a popular and well-regarded film; it was an event, a cultural benchmark. It became part of the language, the shared mythology of the American people. More than its box-office take, more than its critical reception, Star Wars was and is a touchstone of American life.
Guinness himself was moderately impressed by the film; he thought the effects and technology overwhelmed the actors, but the heart and moral decency of the movie impressed him, and he described it as being, ultimately, “powerful.”
But the reaction, the unprecedented response of the people to this one, in his opinion, fairly moderate film annoyed and disturbed him. More than anything, he was bothered by the fact that it was becoming increasingly clear that this was the one he would be remembered for. After all his brilliant work, on screen and stage, after his spectacular turns in his films with David Lean, his delightfully ghoulish comedies, he was going to be remembered for a special-effects extravaganza.
Ever the professional, Guinness agreed to reprise his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi briefly in the subsequent sequels. His share of the box-office meant that he would never have to work again, but of course that wasn’t in the cards for him. It seems that film held little interest to him now, and he did only a few more movies, including his final collaboration with David Lean, A Passage to India (1984). His work brought him a number of awards, including a nomination for Star Wars and an honorary, lifetime achievement Oscar (which he said he was flattered by, but that there was no way he would fly out to California just to pick it up).
Slowly, he allowed his career to wind down. He performed for the last time on stage in 1989 (the comedy A Walk in the Woods), and on screen in the 1998 TV movie Interview Day. After this, failing health forced him to retire. He took to writing his final memoirs, A Positively Final Performance, reading his Bible, and spending time with his family, until, in 2000, he succumbed to liver cancer. His wife, as she had when they entered the Church, followed him into eternity two months later.
Alec Guinness was an unusually gifted actor who provided some of the very finest performances ever to grace the screen. Yet, his acting led him to an even greater gift, when, one day, a small boy mistook his art for reality and, in so doing, set him on the path to the truth. He teaches us that God gives us our gifts for a reason: to lead us back to Him.
Vive Christus Rex!
Vive Christus Rex!