Badly Broken: A Spoiler-Free Analysis of “Breaking Bad” as a Deeply Human Drama

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement

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When it comes to AMC’s mega-hit “Breaking Bad,” there are really three types of people.  The first are those who have just crossed the final threshold of suspense in the series finale, whether they arrived there via the steady and loyal consumption of five years of broadcast or, like myself, via the gorging that is binge watching.  The second are those who are still wandering somewhere in the middle of the show’s vast desert, wondering as they wander how much worse the stress can actually get (and yes, it keeps getting worse).  The third are those who haven’t watched and don’t really know (or care) what all the fuss is about.  This analysis—written just on the other side of the show’s conclusion—is written for all three audiences.  For the first, I am attempting to offer some insight about what we just witnessed.  For the second, I am attempting to provide some possibilities for deeper viewing.  And for the last, I am giving you either a final excuse to definitively pass on the show or some incentive to watch it, depending upon your preference.  For the second and third types, I assure you that this article will not spoil your future viewing even though IBreakingBad obviously have to talk about the show to analyze it.

“Breaking Bad” is simultaneously a simple and complex drama.  The simplicity of the show is held in the interconnected multiplicity of storylines within one overarching story, which, for the most part, generates the drama of the narrative organically (as opposed to other shows which are constantly having to introduce new elements to restart otherwise stalled stories).  The complexity of “Breaking Bad” comes from the depth of its exploration of the human psyche, the moral fabric of communities, and the relationships that bind people together, for better or worse.  This multi-layered, unified drama opens up in three major, interlocking themes, which will guide our analysis: pride, responsibility, and the social nature of humanity.

Pride

If nothing else, “Breaking Bad” is a sustained meditation on pride as the will to reorder reality according to one’s own desire.  Behind all its many disguises, this desire seeks self-perpetuation and self-aggrandizement.  The harbinger of this desire is the “lie,” for what is lying but the dismissal of true reality by the willful manipulation of others through a false narrative.  While there are almost always mitigating factors behind the act of lying, at its core lying allows one of the participants of a human drama to become that drama’s author in some way, thereby assigning other participants new roles with a new script.  For those who have watched even a few episodes of “Breaking Bad,” the pathology of lying is well known as a pervasive element in the story.

SevenDeadlySins

Since the third-to-last episode of the series is likely the story’s climax, it comes as no surprise that the main theme of pride and the correlative action of lying are both restated and definitively interpreted.  The opening scene of the episode finds Walter and Jesse—the drama’s primary and secondary characters, respectively—back at the beginning of their entrepreneurial days as aspiring methamphetamine producers.  The scene is not exactly one that appeared in a previous episode, but nevertheless fits perfectly within the narrative sequence of the show’s early days.  Since a number of storylines will come to a head in this episode, the writers’ used this opening sequence to remind the viewers what is holding this all together.  Waiting for a beaker of boiling chemicals to reach its own climax, Walter gives his former failing student (Jesse) a quick lesson on exothermic reactions: chemical processes that give off heat and whose effects are move in an outward trajectory.  At the close of the scene, Walter steps away to call his wife and offer the first direct lie of the entire story.  Except for the mobile meth lab just over his shoulder, the lie seems rather ordinary as he basically says, “Honey, I’m going to be late tonight because something came up at work.”  Thus begins the chain reaction.

By the fifth season, viewers may have forgotten just how bad Walter was at lying in the early days.  Before that first lie, we see him rehearsing his story; even more important, he justified it to himself based upon his particular circumstances.  There would always be justifications and before long others would justify their own complicity in his corruption, whether knowingly or unknowingly.  Seen from the distance of five seasons (or less than two years within the show’s own timeline), that first lie now reveals itself as an initial, awkward move to recast events according to a desire to manipulate reality.  As his pride grew and hardened, Walter’s lies became more “natural” and more engrained.  Paradoxically, the more Walter reworks his reality, the stronger the force of destiny surrounding him becomes.  With each passing episode in each passing season, the air of inevitability grows ever stronger.  The more power Walter accrues through the willful LastJudgmentwarping of his reality, the less free he actually is to control his reality and wield events to fit his desire.  More and more, the destiny he constructed controls him.

The title of this climactic episode also discloses something essential about the show’s meta-theme.  The writers’ borrowed its name from the Percy Shelley poem, “Ozymandias.”  The final third of the poem reads as follows:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far way.

With the almost obsessive attention given to Walter White through more than 60 episodes of “Breaking Bad,” it is easy and perhaps fitting to think of Walter as this “King of Kings.”  If, however, we consider how Walter’s own freedom has slowly evaporated into the encircling gloom of destiny as the heat of his pride steadily increases, we might ponder more deeply who inscribed these words on the remnant sculpture Shelley depicts in this sonnet.  With the passage of time, the reaction that started with a simple lie and a heart of mixed motives has now brought about a reality that seems inevitable in retrospect.  The one who tried to sculpt a reality for himself is now rendered an artifact of that very reality.  The King who outlasts all kings is that hardened destiny born of pride.

If this destiny is the child of pride, then Walter nourished this impersonal despot from infancy.  He fed it the envy he reaped from gazing upon the accomplishments of others.  He offered it outrage from an ongoing sense of being cheated.  He suckled it with fury for his under-appreciated genius.  As his pride grew from a singular lie to a pattern of lying to an unending urge for control, he finally glimpsed what his desire had become: a compulsion for empire—that is, for the unbridled aggrandizement of himself as undisputed sovereign of his realm.Empire

Responsibility

With a character as central to a story as Walter White, it is tempting to place the genesis of the drama in his own psyche.  Part of the brilliance of “Breaking Bad” is that it does not easily allow for this contraction.  What the viewers see through both the sequence of events and the ultimate interconnectedness of these events is that even a colossally dominant figure like Walter is not a monadic entity.  He is not just himself.  The choices he and others make throughout the course of the drama are constitutive of Walter’s total embodiment.  Though the events of this particular show take place in a highly charged crucible of time and space, there is also a claim here about universal human personhood: we are responsible for our choices just as we make manifest in our very selves the responsibility others have for their choices.

Each character in this story—including and especially Walter White—both lives in and contributes to a certain reality that both orders the character and is ordered by the character.  As with any story, the characters inhabit an order that is already established before we meet them.  They exist in a certain socio-historical setting replete with pasts of pains and joys, successes and sorrows, and possibilities realized and unrealized.  What this drama does better than most (all?) in television history is show how these particular characters—and again, especially Walter White—shape their previously preordained milieu through their intentions, actions, interactions, and failures to act.  Each of them comes to change not just on account of some interior disposition—whether given or chosen—but through the tension found between their interior disposition and their exterior relation to their environment, especially their relationships to one another.  What the viewer comes to see is that what holds together in each person is more than what each person knowingly holds.  To again refer to the key chemical term, their choices set off exothermic reactions Exothermicthat reach outwards to others even as others’ choices reach out to them.

This means that the full view of each individual person surpasses what one can see by looking just at the individual.  One cannot know Walter White or Jesse Pinkman through psychology alone.  Indeed, each character is involved in the construction of an economy, one in which all share.  This economy houses transactions in terms of blessings and curses, mercies and deceptions, kindnesses and lies.  Of course, there is also a tremendous amount of money, drugs, and power in circulation.  Each one of the characters’ chosen actions—regardless of the degree of freedom involved in their discharge—creates a shared reality in which the choices of others are conditioned.  While no one inside the story sees all of these connections, the viewer does (or at least ‘can’).  From the other side of the screen, the viewer is able to see how the historical expressions of the characters’ disparate desires extend who they are into the lives of others.  Certainly, Walter White (or Heisenberg) exists beyond the limits of his physical body, but so too does Skyler White, Hank Schrader, Jesse Pinkman, and all the other major characters in the drama.

Therefore, each character’s personal responsibility extends broadly in all directions.  For those who might be interested in questions of judgment and redemption, the field of vision required to level judgment and evaluate prospects for redemption is almost infinitely vast.  For sure, each person’s responsibility outlasts the action itself; in fact, responsibility endures even after one’s own lifetime since the full measure of one’s choices continues to unfold well after one’s deaths (this is a general statement rather than a statement about any particular character: again, no spoilers here about who does or doesn’t die).  Once a choice ratifies an interior desire and is discharge into the shared economy of persons, that person is at least to some extent responsible for the consequences, for good or for ill.

Social Nature

What we see in “Breaking Bad” is that the bonds between people are conductors.  What one person does or wills reaches out through their relations into a broader network: a social network.  The familial community at the center of the drama discloses this truth in acute fashion.  As one person curves his will inward to suit his own purposes, he affects and influences the rest of the members.  It is not just the consequences of Walter’s pride that spread; pride itself spreads.  Under the strain and stress of one person’s in-curving concern, each member of the network begins to abide in a new reality, one in which the rule of pride is infectious.  Whereas we were introduced to this family as a community of mutual concern—for all intents and purposes—we watch them slowly deteriorate as the dilemma and deception Walter introduced makes it impossible for others to care for him—or one another—authentically.  Even before Walter’s lies are uncovered, the lies separate him from authentic participation in the community.  This distance causes uncertainty and even fear, causing the other members to recoil in anxiety without even knowing what it is they fear.  Corrosion seeps into otherwise unperceived places, compromising even the best of intentions.

Family

That these persons are connected and that their connections act as conductors are both givens in the narrative.  This makes the corruption of one person even more dangerous because it means that the other persons in relation to him are interiorly affected in addition to being exteriorly influenced.  Yet, for all the ways in which this social nature compounds the crisis of pride, it also remains an implicit grace.

On the one hand, even the man at the source of the corruption—Walter White—is unable to exercise an absolutely evil will because of the ties that unite him to others.  Without his connections to his children, his wife, and even to Jesse Pinkman—for whom he develops an almost inexplicable paternal fondness—Walter very well may have purely willed his selfish way regardless of the consequences.  As corrupted as his care becomes, he does care for these few others and thus is never able to will pure destruction.  This enduring grace ultimately thwarts his success at building his empire, at becoming radically evil.  (If those who have seen the show think of the times when Walter either could have or tried to “get out” of the “empire business”, one will see how his ambition is at least distracted because of his connections to others.)

On the other hand, this social nature is an implicit grace because just as pride was communicated through the network, so too is sacrifice communicated.  Viewers see moments of mercy from even Walter and Jesse beginning in the early episodes.  Certainly, these mercies are communicated socially.  The problem is that the crisis of pride has reverberated so strongly that these mercies call for greater ones in order to endure and have lasting effects in the corrosive economy.

“Breaking Bad” clearly shows that the social nature of humanity works to communicate corruption, but the show also quietly implies that this network would communicate blessing.  This social nature impedes Walter from willing definitively—in a single instant, like a fallen angel—his identity.  His choices always enter into the social network just as they are always conditioned through it.  His pride will move through the network so long as his pride festers, but his own sacrifice might also become the source of healing for his wounded family albeit without the power to immediately right every wrong.

The Singular Question

Of course, it is pride that drives this chaotic narrative from beginning to end.  The show’s drama builds as pride’s leavening effect is first unleashed and then progressively gathers strength.  St. Paul knew this well in his own communities: “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens all the dough?” (1 Cor. 5:6).  Through the highly concentrated drama of the particular circumstances of “Breaking Bad,” we see the truth of this statement.  The hidden possibility of redemption thus runs alongside this accelerating tragedy, with the implicit invitation rising to the surface at key moments through Walter’s conscience, his relationships, and his occasional exhaustion, as if to say, “Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:8).

The question of the entire series is, thus: Will Walter White perpetuate his pride—that addiction to controlling his reality that serves as leaven and chemically induces the growing certainty of the tragic destiny—or will he hazard himself in a sacrifice of truth and humility where he releases control, thus removing the leaven, come what may?

If you, like me, watched through to the end of “Breaking Bad,” the unfolding drama of that question is what I think we witnessed.  If you’re watching now, that’s what is taking place.  And if you haven’t seen any of this, that’s what you’re missing.

Follow Leonard DeLorenzo @leodelo2.

Catholic Education and the New Evangelization

TimOMalley

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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The Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and the Institute for Church Life is happy to make available our newest edition of Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization.   This edition’s theme is Catholic Education and the New Evangelization.   In the coming weeks, we’ll be featuring selections from individual articles from the journal.   But to whet your appetite, here is the editorial for the edition.   

In a series of lectures delivered at Yale University (later published as Education at the Crossroads), Jacques Maritain offered an assessment of the state of education in 1943. He described several misconceptions relative to the education in his day. The fundamental misconnection for Maritain was developing an approach to education that does not consider toward what end education should be directed. While educational science can offer pedagogical insight to the teacher, it does not provide a vision of the sort of person that this education seeks to form. A school, for example, may be made up of a cadre of astute pedagogues, who each have distinct understandings of humanity’s ultimate purpose. For ChurchLife2.2some, education is successful when a person is made a critical thinker, able to pierce beyond the power structures set up by human society. Others may argue that the end of an education is the creation of a young man or woman who enters into society ready to contribute in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The government, partially responsible for setting the curriculum of this school, may offer other ends to consider, embodied in standardized tests and required curricula.

The existence of Catholic education remains an interruptive and thus evangelizing force to this limited vision of education. At the heart of Catholic education is the reality that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Word made flesh, the One sent from the Father, seeks to sanctify our humanity through love. Other forms of education may seek to promote goodness, kindness, and compassion, but a Catholic education seeks nothing less than the slow transformation of our humanity into an icon of self-giving love. In the science classroom, we gaze at up at the stars and discover the wonder of a creation that is being ever renewed, ever expanded, and we praise the Creator for the gift of this chaotic order. In the English classroom, the beauty of speech, of narratives that draw us into the drama of being Moonhuman, slowly reveal to us the depths of the humanity that Christ came to save. In theology, that subject which epitomizes the strangeness of the Catholic school vis-à-vis non-religious forms of education, our reason learns to savor those salutary images found in the Scriptures, in Christian doctrine, in the social teaching of the Church, and in the life of prayer—and slowly, our vision of what constitutes reality is transfigured. Our education is not about us, it’s not about the future elite university that we will attend; it is about the transfiguration of our humanity in love. This cosmic and eschatological vision of humanity, transfigured through Christ, is the ultimate end of any education that calls itself Catholic. Education seeks to form human beings capacitated for gratitude.

Perhaps this is why the most important subject in a Catholic school’s curriculum is the Eucharist itself. Not simply theological instruction regarding what constitutes the Church’s robust Eucharistic teaching. Rather, that full, conscious, and active participation in the Eucharistic rites of the Church whereby every facet of our humanity is lifted up to the Father through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Our failures in the classroom, our being turned down by the college of our dreams, the broken family and friendships that mark the life of an adolescent are lifted up to the Father, offered as a Eucharistic sacrifice of love, and transformed with the bread and wine offered on the altar. Teachers at such schools (whose salaries are low and whose extra-curricular responsibilities are high) dare to perceive their work not as a series of tasks to be performed but a Eucharistic offering of self whereby their attention to grading, their answering of student emails, the failures and successes of teaching are integral to their vocation. The centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the school is a constant reminder that Catholic education does not exist simply to worship at the altar of success, of excellence, of technological innovation that drives an economy of consumption. Rather, Catholic education exists to restore all things in Christ, all aspects of being a student, of being a teacher, as we enter into more deeply into the intellectual and spiritual richness of the Church.

JesusEucharist

Indeed, this is why the Catholic school cannot be separated from the educational mission of the parish. Schools focusing exclusively upon the educational aims implicit in contemporary pedagogy will cease meditating upon the vision of humanity presented by Christ, a memory constantly savored in the Eucharistic life of the parish. In the parish, our humanity is transformed not simply through intellectual formation—by cultivating critical thought, succeeding in standardized tests, or chasing down the latest educational fad. Instead, the entirety of human life is gradually lifted up to the Father through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Women and men discover alternative ways of being human, ones in which faith, hope, and love are the supreme virtues. The parish, and its practice of formation that begins at birth and concludes with death, is a source of constant refreshment to the Catholic schools, seeking to limit their educational aims.

Despite the rather robust vision of Catholic education outlined above, there remains a rather intractable problem. Those of us involved in Catholic education in parishes and schools alike can easily forget that while Catholic institutions may seek to restore all things in Christ, we do so only because we participate in the larger mission of the Church. That is, we do not form our students at Catholic institutions so that they might become faithful alums of our school. We do not want them to remember fondly that the highlight of their immersion into Christ’s life took place at the ages of fourteen or twenty-one. Rather, for our Catholic students, we seek to promote faith in the Church itself, because the Church is not simply Pope Francis, the bishops, those teachers who are charged with teaching theology. Instead, the Church is the Body of Christ, a sacrament that mediates divine love to the world through the glorious poverty of the preached Word, of the sacramental life of the Church. At times, such faith is difficult. Our leaders, both ordained and lay, may fail to carry out this self-giving love. The preaching, the sacramental life of the Church, may be performed in a perfunctory manner, which seemingly deadens the faith of those gathered into this Body. But we cannot dismiss the Church, because it is within this Body that we come to encounter Christ Himself.

Thus, if we as Catholic educators really want to form our students in the mission of Catholic education, then we’ll teach them not simply a love for the intellectual life, for service, even for leading prayer services. Instead, we’ll teach them a love for the Christ who comes to us in bread once bread and wine once wine. We’ll show them that the Catholic school’s deepest identity is learned in the wise but foolish school of the Church in which intellect and power and prestige are burned away by Christ’s own love. StJosephSchool

Catholic educational institutions, therefore, have quite a mission to uphold. Not one composed by a committee of faculty, staff, and students. Not one handed down from a diocesan office. Rather, the mission is nothing less than the transformation of all humanity into an icon of Christ’s own love for the life of the world. Catholic education is concerned about the marginalized, those perceived by society and culture alike as unworthy of education, precisely because of the ultimate vision of reality in which it operates. We see reality, all of creation, as a gift to be savored.

Thus, this edition of Church Life contemplates the ultimate vision of gift that is to direct Catholic educational institutions. It does not attend to issues in educational policy or novel approaches to pedagogy developed in journals of educational philosophy. Instead, in this issue, the reader is invited to consider the telos, the ultimate aim of Catholic education as the renewal of humanity in Christ. In this way, it seeks not simply to make an argument relative to what constitutes Catholic education in parish and school alike. Rather, we hope that through this vision, those involved in the educational mission of the Church will discover that their own vision of their work will be transformed.    

A full pdf of our edition on Catholic Education and the New Evangelization may be found here.

 

For They Shall Inherit the Kingdom of Heaven

Becky GuhinBecky Guhin, M.Div.
Director of Stewardship
Saint Joseph Parish, South Bend, IN

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“You know, I was walking up by Notre Dame, and a family was there, and we got to talking, and it was nice and all, and suddenly the lady just said, ‘Are you a bum?’ And I said, ‘Well, I guess you could call me that, I mean I’m homeless,’
and that really got me down.”

A kind gentleman with warm blue eyes and a gentle heart said that to me this morning while we drank coffee together.

My immediate reaction was to gasp.  I could see the pain in his face, like someone had kicked him while he was down, like he could cry, like his last ounce of pride had been so quickly stomped down—even in the random reflection back on the experience.  My pain for him deepened when, despite it clearly hurting him, he didn’t seem surprised by the description he was given.  I’m sure “bum” is one of the more kosher insults he hears; after all, we’ve all heard the way people (perhaps even we ourselves) talk about the poor in our communities.  We complain about paying taxes to support them, we wonder why they don’t ‘just get a job,’ and worse, we don’t look into their eyes at all.  But it wasn’t so much the term that concerned me as much as the sentiment; it seemed this man—with a body and soul intimately known and loved by God—was reduced to… nothing.

Christ in the BreadlinesI believe the question is urgent.  How is it possible that right next to a Catholic university someone could say something like that?  Her words identify such ignorance to the truth of the Gospel, to the truth of Christ’s very identity.  Chances are this person was associated with the university in some way, and was potentially even Catholic.  Notre Dame has a variety of resources to facilitate both education in and opportunities for peace building through relationship, from facilitating peace on an international level to local service experiences in South Bend to (most effectively) the glorious presence of the Eucharist, which the Catechism says, “commits us to the poor” (CCC, §1397).  These opportunities to work for justice are rooted in the Congregation of Holy Cross’ emphasis on teaching us to be women and men with hope to bring.  And yet, just a glance away, we see poverty.

This is the University of our Lady, who proclaimed in her Magnificat: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty” (Lk 1:52-53).  When this poor young woman became pregnant with the Word of God, she said yes, she said amen—and by His life, His death, His resurrection, we are saved.

Dorothy DayThe poor deserve our reverence, not our criticism.  Dorothy Day used to say that the Gospel removed our right to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor.  She did not only serve the people who said thank you, the people who returned the favor, the people who were polite; she served, and more importantly, she befriended the poor in her midst.  For anyone who walked up to her door; there she was.  Dorothy Day wrote in her journals, The Duty of Delight:

“No matter how broke we are, people do not stop coming, nor do they go away. Sometimes, I feel like saying, ‘Those who don’t have to be here, please go away.’ But they would just look helpless and say ‘Where else shall we go?’ Fernando says, ‘No one ever loved me.’ I hear that many times a month and feel like saying, ‘Where there is no love, put love.’ We all need to learn that. Of course sometimes it is hard to love people. Fr. Hugo said you love God as much as the one you love the least. So all our life is a practice to learn to love God” (Sept. 17, 1961).


It could not be more simple.  We encounter Christ in every person that we meet, most profoundly in the poor.  Jesus is very direct: Whatever you did to the least of these, you did for me…and whatever you didn’t do for the least of these, you didn’t do for me (Mt 25).  Thomas Merton said that if we could always see each other as we really are, “I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other,” because each of us is so intricately made in the image of God.  Even forgetting the poor have the privileged place, this means that people deserve our utmost reverence: rich and poor alike.

Come Inherit the KingdomWe are never going to understand Matthew 25 if it remains strictly intellectual, or simply something we hear at Mass and think, “okay, yeah, I know.”  No, we only understand Christ’s presence in the poor through prayer and through relationship.

We pray to deepen our belief in God who emptied Himself to become one of us, as helpless as to be a baby born in a manger.  We pray to open ourselves up to God we encounter throughout our lives.  We pray for the courage to grow in relationship with people who might even make us a little uncomfortable.  We pray that we can grow in friendship so that more and more we will want to give ourselves away.  We go spend time with people who are poor, even when we don’t want to do it.  We pray and we pray and we pray.  We look the poor in the eye, we become poorer ourselves, and we pray.

Pope Francis said, “You can’t speak of poverty without having experienced with the poor. You can’t speak of poverty in the abstract: that doesn’t exist.”  Opening ourselves to the poor means opening ourselves to God.  It means openness to living more simply (even one little bit at a time), to stewarding our resources more prayerfully, to praying more faithfully.

Saint Basil the Great said, “The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.”

We cannot forget that no matter the mistakes made, the clothes worn, the services received, the poor are Christ.  Please, Christ, forgive us.  You are anything but a bum.  Give us courage to seek you, to smile at you, to really really really love you.

“Return a Blessing Instead”: The Logic of Christian Discipleship

Keating, JessicaJessica Keating, M.Div.
Director, University Life Initiatives, Notre Dame

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Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily
during Vespers on Thursday, September 12, 2013.
We are grateful for the author’s permission to share it here.

“All of you, be of one mind, sympathetic, 
loving toward one another, compassionate, humble. 
Do not return evil for evil, or insult for insult; 
but, on the contrary, a blessing, 
because to this you were called, that you might inherit a blessing.
For: ‘Whoever would love life and see good days
must keep the tongue from evil and the lips from speaking deceit,
must turn from evil and do good, seek peace and follow after it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
and his ears turned to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against evildoers.'” (1 Pet 3:8-12)

If we are truly honest with ourselves, most of us desire to strike back at any perceived or real injury or insult; to repay injury; to return insult.  So when we hear the exhortation, “Do not return evil for evil or insult for insult.  Return a blessing instead,” we recoil, even if only for an imperceptible passing flash.  It seems to us that Peter is either woefully naïve of human nature or has simply set the bar too high.  We cannot always be expected to be like-minded, sympathetic, loving, kindly disposed, and humble.  http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-one-couple-man-woman-screaming-shouting-dipute-image22651714Surely, sometimes we can justify being hard and petty, selfish and haughty.  Surely, we can sharpen our ideas and words to justify returning evil for evil.

Peter is fully aware of the human condition; made in the image and likeness of God, sin has narrowed our vision and disfigured human nature, and he is attentive to these sore and tender wounds of sin that each one of us bears.  He is not merely exhorting us to try harder.  Rather, Peter is keenly attuned to the reality of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and he is drawing our gaze to the Crucified One.  In Christ, God has returned humanity’s evil with His Son, our insult with His eternal Word.  Blessing has He returned for our curse.

The Taking of Christ-CaravaggioIn the person of Jesus Christ, we encounter the divine answer to scandal of evil and to humanity’s resounding rejection of God’s love. We encounter the One who returned abandonment by His disciples, the mocking sneers of the crowd, and a mouthful of gall with a plea to the Father to “forgive them for they know not what they do” (cf. Lk 23:34).  Here we encounter the One who is eternally sympathetic, loving, kindly disposed, and humble; the One who returns a blessing for evil.

It is precisely this mystery that we celebrate on Holy Saturday when the Church praises God in the Exsultet.  Corporately she sings, “O happy fault, that was worthy of such and so great a Redeemer.”  We rejoice in Adam’s fall, not because there is anything praiseworthy or redeeming in sin itself.  Indeed, in his meditation on the sins of his youth, Saint Augustine takes great pains to articulate the absolute irrationality of sin—its utter nothingness.  Rather, Adam’s sin is the great felix culpa because God returns the insult of humanity’s ingratitude by taking up our marred and sin-stained condition and redeeming it in his only begotten Son.

Corporal Works of Mercy-Visit the ImprisonedIt is life in Christ, then, that not only enables us to turn from evil but to do good; His power capacitates us to return blessing for insult.  By participating in His Body, the Church, in her sacramental life, her life of prayer, and the works of mercy, we practice the spiritual disciplines of like-mindedness, sympathy, kindness, and humility—the disciplines of love. Gathered together in baptism and constantly aided by grace, these disciplines continually wash us clean so that God’s beauty, the image of Christ, may radiate forth for us.

The Light Shines in the Darkness: Faith-filled Hope in the Face of Violence

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Much of the focus in the news and social media these past weeks has been on the violence in Syria and the debate surrounding the possibility of a military response. On September 1, Pope Francis appealed to the world community to observe a day of fasting and prayer on September 7, and last night, President Obama appealed to the American community for support as the U.S. government deliberates over its response to danger of chemical weapons in Syria. September 11 Memorial-New YorkToday, the nation observes the twelfth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Those of us old enough to recall that fateful day probably remember with crystal clarity where we were and what we were doing when those unforgettable images of tragedy were forever seared into our individual and collective memories. It’s also the first anniversary of the attack on the U.S. consulate building in Benghazi.

The presence of such violence in the world today and the remembrance of violence past give one ample reason to pause and to pray. While this post in no way serves to promote a political viewpoint, it does endeavor to contemplate the reality of violence and the presence of suffering, and how one might gaze into the darkness of that reality and live in the pain of that presence with a clear-eyed vision formed by faith.

Cain and AbelThe anguish brought on by the presence of violence in the world, and the crises of faith that are so often the result have plagued humanity since Cain raised his hand against his brother Abel. The Psalms, particularly the Psalms of lament, give voice to this anguish felt by every generation, and they continue to speak to us today. Amid today’s violence and turmoil, confronted by our own littleness and seeming powerlessness in the face of the powers of evil, we may often feel forgotten or abandoned by God. Millennia ago, this very human response to violence was not so different from our own.

 

The psalmist proclaims:

“I will say to God, my rock:
‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
oppressed by the foe?’
With cries that pierce me to the heart, my enemies revile me,
saying to me all the day long: ‘Where is your God?’”
(Ps 42:10-11, ICEL translation)

Indeed, faced with violence, people ask every day, all the day long, “Where is God?” When innocents are massacred as they were in the days of Herod, Where is God? When entire generations are wiped out in the blink of an eye, Where is God? When the powerful oppress the vulnerable and atrocities abound, Where is God?

Christ the Savior-El GrecoIn the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus, we have our answer. In the midst of darkness, terror, and violence, God is there in the Person of Jesus Christ, who emptied Himself in self-giving love so that, in the fullness of that love, He might enter the heart of darkness and death itself and transform it into light and life. He who tells us, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12) is truly “the light [that] shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). The darkness has not overcome it. The darkness will not overcome it.

Yet, while we await Christ’s return in the fullness of unending glory, we must still contend with that darkness. Yes, the light shines in the darkness, but until that day when “night will be no more,” when we will need no “light from lamp [nor] sun” (Rev 22:5), we are still a part of the creation that “awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God;” the creation that “is groaning in labor pains even until now” (Rom 8:19, 22). The pangs of those labor pains intensify when darkness looms close and threatens to extinguish the light of Christ within our souls, and it is in those moments that we must return to the faith-filled words of the psalmist: “Why are you cast down, my soul, why groan within me? Hope in God; I will praise him still, my savior and my God” (Ps 42:12).

Our souls groan within us. All creation groans in labor pains. We long for the day when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; [when] one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again” (Is 2:4). In the midst of such darkness, we must continuously seek the light of Christ that shines into our downcast souls so that we might be that light in the world for all. When a cacophony of voices cries for vengeance, we must seek the light of Him who said: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43), and “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Mt 5:7). When the weight of futility would drag us into the darkness of despair, we must seek the light of Him who said, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (Jn 16:33).

Easter Vigil Service of Light-Notre Dame de ParisThe same One who said “I am the light of the world” also says to us: “You are the light of the world. Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Mt 5:14a, 16). As we remember the sorrows of a violent past, and struggle with the fear of a violent present, may we cling in hope to the Prince of Peace, who suffered a violent death out of love for the human family in order to restore peace and unity to creation torn apart by sin. Let us continue to follow the Light of the World so that we might “not walk in darkness,” but “have the light of life” (Jn 8:12b). Then, with that light of life burning within us, we may in turn become light for the world so that all may find “the reason for our hope” (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). Then, in the midst of that light, we will be able to pray truly as we gaze unblinkingly into the darkness with the clear eyes of faith: “Hope in God; I will praise him still, my savior and my God.”

Practical Mercy: The Wisdom in Feeling Small

Dorothy Therese

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Previous Posts in this Series:
The (Human) Dignity in Making Time
Blessed Are the Grouchy
Can’t Read My Poker Face

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose…
-Thomas Merton

“Do you think Jesus ever felt discouraged?” I asked, leaning against an office door, silently reminding myself not to cry at work. Our social work intern smiled at me and said, “Yes, for sure.”

Of course he did: people were hating on the Savior of the World all the time! They were constantly suspicious of Him; they tried to corner Him into betraying Jewish law and government officials. He experienced agony in the garden; He was betrayed by His friends; He was taunted as He carried his Cross; and He died for us, for people who were constantly critical of Him.

(c) Sudley House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationTheologians have been discussing for centuries the mystery of Jesus’ suffering—of God’s suffering, in the person of Jesus. When the woman at the well says the Messiah is coming, Jesus says, “I am he, the one who is speaking with you” (Jn 4:26). But He experiences the consequences of others’ sin, and as a human with feelings, of course He experienced pain. I would dare say there were moments when Jesus felt small.

I recently studied at a prestigious university for a master’s degree, and I remember thinking frequently that I had completely fooled everyone involved in admissions. How could they possibly think that I am worthy of such an honor? Of course no one is, we are all simply beneficiaries of God’s gifts to us—but good grief, did they know me at all? As time went along, I was successful in my coursework and internships and discovered so much about myself in the process, strengths and weaknesses alike. And I still can’t believe I’ve been honored with the degree; God provided more than I could have ever imagined for myself, as he always does.

Now I’m working at a homeless shelter where no one, staff or guests alike, cares one little bit about my fancy degree, whether or not I feel worthy of it. The guests care whether I successfully hand them a bus pass, or confirm their negative drug test, or rid their room of bed bugs, or write them a letter of residency right when they want it done. They care that I care about them, that I listen to them, that I offer them some glimmer of hope in their relatively stinky lives.

I felt small at my fancy university and I feel small in a different way at my humble job at a homeless shelter. I was born to be a leader and I know I have a capacity to make a real difference. But every day at work, I just feel small. And as we know, “Your playing small does not serve the world” (Marianne Williamson). So in the Christian life, what is the significance of feeling small?

Recently when I returned home from work feeling frustrated by my seeming failures—one step forward and ten steps back, a friend responded, “But what an honor that you get to work with the poor.” I was startled—oh yeah, that Matthew 25 business, the whole reason I started this job to begin with. Sometimes I start rolling along my frustration train, completely burdened by other people’s problems, by how overworked I feel, by all the negative feedback, by working too many hours a week and achieving seemingly nothing but a creeping feeling of burnout.

And yet, Thomas Merton wrote:

“…no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not. Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.” 

PrayerThe cosmic dance which is always there. Even in weakness. I’ve been beaten with a humility stick—by the homeless mothers at our shelter, so frequently difficult to handle, and, in a gentler way, by the God who keeps poking me until I finally listen.

I pray for the wisdom to be small, to learn from all my mistakes and from the daily experience of life with the urban poor. And I pray for the wisdom to be strong, the courage to stand up for what I believe and to love with the heart of Christ, a heart that suffered, and through suffering, brought us redemption.

I’m confident Jesus felt discouraged at times. But He didn’t despair because He knew in His sacred heart the true meaning of His suffering. Oftentimes at work in my utter discouragement I drop by forehead on my desk and ask for the grace to go on. And my strength is made perfect in weakness—when I realize that not only am I not their Messiah, but I’m not the perfect case worker or the perfect human being trying to help.  I’m just doing my best, and I’m confident God is working through me. I measure my success now not by successful move-outs but by those moments that I finally shut up and listen, by the times I stop in someone’s room just to chat, by the children I look in the eye as I’m hugging and tickling.

Divinity entered humanity so that humanity could become divine. God emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. There is wisdom in feeling small.

Videos from Liturgy Symposium 2013

Tim O'MalleyWe’re happy to make available to our readers videos from our Liturgy Symposium 2013.   Stay tuned on Monday for a formal announcement regarding the Liturgy Symposium 2014.

Kimberly Belcher, Into the Name:  Baptism and the Trinitarian Life

Kimberly Belcher, Infant Baptism:  Crumbs from the Children’s Table

Maxwell Johnson, Images of Baptism (Part 1)

Maxwell Johnson, Images of Baptism (Part 2)

Nicholas Denysenko, Chrismation:  Eastern and Western Approaches 

Hosffman Ospino, Initiation, Culture, and Evangelization

Andrew Casad, R.C.I.A.:  Birthing the Children of God

Robin Jensen, Baptismal Imagery in Art and Architecture

Leonard DeLorenzo, Across the Silent Horizon:   The Communion of Saints

“Waking Up the Echoes”: Liturgical Formation From the Outside Looking In

Laura TaylorLaura Taylor
Master of Theological Studies Candidate,
University of Notre Dame

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Previous posts in this series:
“Waking Up the Echoes”: Notre Dame, Liturgical Formation, and the New Evangelization

 

“I throw myself at the foot of the Tabernacle
like a dog at the foot of his Master.”

“We must visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament
a hundred thousand times a day.”

“Do you want many graces? Go and visit the Blessed Sacrament often.
Do you want few graces? Visit the Blessed Sacrament rarely.
Do you want none at all? Then never pay a visit to the Blessed Sacrament.”

I’ve begun this monthly column in earnest with a selection of brief quotes respectively attributed to St. John Vianney, St. Francis de Sales, and St. John Bosco that may be quite unsettling to millennial Catholics. Who among us throws themselves at the feet of tabernacles these days, or goes to Adoration that much? Barring religious orders devoted to Perpetual Adoration or the few-and-far-between parishes with Blessed Sacrament chapels, hardly anyone—and if someone does, the rest of us would most likely cringe at such a melodramatic display of piety. Yet, countless great saints before us have prostrated themselves in front of the tabernacle, penned achingly beautiful odes to the Blessed Sacrament (see especially St. Thomas Aquinas’ Adoro te devote and St. Teresa of Ávila’s writings on the Eucharist), wept tears of ecstasy and grief at contemplating the Last Supper and Christ’s Passion, and witnessed marvelous Eucharistic miracles. Where are these displays today? Are we missing something completely obvious about the divine mysteries of our faith concerning the Eucharist? Indeed, we have stumbled along blindly far enough—this post addresses how we might reconsider our perception of the Mass before even entering a church, from something boring and habitual, or “community-building,” into a transformative celebration of astonishing beauty and magnificence that reflects a New Heaven and New Earth, the heavenly Jerusalem as a bride gloriously adorned for her husband (Rev 21:1-5).

“The Eucharist is an entry into the liturgy of heaven,” wrote Benedict XVI in The Spirit of the Liturgy (70). I surmise that if we pause for just a brief moment outside our churches and remember that for the next hour we will be transported into a heavenly reality, then our senses will adjust and more acutely perceive the wonders enacted in our midst. We will see with fresh, new eyes that “though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:16-18). Although we may not physically be able to see what has been hidden to us as the priest consecrates bread and wine and incense billows to the rafters, our interior gaze focused on Christ witnesses that what transpires on the altar is truly a reflection of heaven on earth.

The unsettling, zealous quotes I began with provoke a couple of hard-hitting questions that we should be asking on our pilgrimages of faith into and throughout adulthood. Have we considered what about the Mass caused such an all-consuming devotion to the liturgy for these saints, and most especially to the Eucharist? Have we thought to explore what the Church offers us? Hopefully questions like this might serve in some small capacity to chip away the hardness of heart that habitually develops over time, however innocently, and leads us to take our faith for granted. They can initiate a steadily growing anticipation of what is to come during the liturgy, and instill the kind of reverence that comes from a profound movement within the self—a transformation just beginning to stir, like a flame flickering into existence. There’s a mystical element here that goes far beyond human comprehension; our entrance into a church commences our very union with the entire cosmos in euphoric praise and thanksgiving. Luckily, our pope-emeritus can expound upon this much more eloquently than I.

In the words of Benedict XVI, the cosmos prays with us because, like us, it ardently desires redemption. The cosmic dimension of the liturgy is fundamental to the Catholic faith, because “it is never performed solely in the self-made world of man” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 70)—which is why we are obligated to consciously depart from our lives in the world before entering a church. In a way, recognizing the cosmic dimension of the liturgy can save us from ourselves—for the Blessed Sacrament “contains a dynamism, which has the goal of transforming mankind and the world into the New Heaven and New Earth, into the unity of the risen Body” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 87). I think, if there’s a reason for lapsing faith or taking advantage of the Mass, it’s because we have succumbed to a mindset that receiving Communion is eating a ‘thing-like’ gift, another task to complete on our ever-expanding to-do lists. “No,” Benedict XVI counters: “there is a person-to-person exchange, a coming of the one into the other. The living Lord gives himself to me, enters into me, and invites me to surrender myself to him, so that the Apostle’s words come true: ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Gal 2:20)” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 88-89).

In the end, liturgical formation occurs long before we cross the threshold of a church. Only when we come to realize why our steps are drawn inexplicably toward the altar, toward our Creator and Redeemer, can we hope to delve deeper into the mysteries of our faith. We cannot expect to come to love the liturgy unless we know what it’s about and what it actually means for us and for the world. Of course this moment of comprehension will occur uniquely to each one of us in its own time, but that is one of the many glorious things about being on a life-long pilgrimage of faith! Our purpose for worship, therefore, manifests itself into a burning desire to encounter Him face-to-face. This enigmatic tugging of our hearts to approach the Lord draws us closer to Him in the liturgy. Indeed, this is why these saints have professed such gripping declarations of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.

I’ll leave you with one last quotation—not intended to unsettle, but to encourage and hopefully enkindle an excitement and profound love for the liturgy. May we keep in mind the words of St. Damien of Molokai, the ‘Apostle of the Lepers’:

“Were it not for the constant presence of our divine Master in our humble chapel, I would not have found it possible to persevere in sharing the lot of the lepers in Molokai… The Eucharist is the bread that gives us strength… It is at once the most eloquent proof of His love and the most powerful means of fostering His love in us. He gives Himself every day so that our hearts as burning coals may set afire the hearts of the faithful.”

From the outside looking in, liturgy contains much, much more than it appears.