San Francisco is a city for bread-lovers if there ever was one. Scores of bakeries line the city streets, each offering particularly unique loaves to particularly devoted sets of locals. The story of San Francisco bread is a story of the search for hidden treasure. In the mid-1800s, the San Francisco area was abuzz with the pursuit of gold, and bread was an obvious staple for miners on their way to the gold fields. However, in these early mining years, a curious complication arose in the rising bread. Bakers found that the recipes that had resulted in familiar loaves back home garnered different, sour-tasting bread when baked in the San Francisco climate. However, curiously, this unexpected sourness wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: it lent a richness to the bread that began to be especially cherished by the miners in search of gold. This treasured bread became the sourdough bread that we build our sandwiches upon today.
A little while ago, on a warm evening at the beginning of the semester, I was standing on the edge of St. Mary’s lake with my boyfriend. He was peacefully silent, staring out, when all of sudden he started to sniff. He sniffed, and he proclaimed, excitedly: “It smells like good bread!” Of course, I made fun of him at the time. For one thing, I didn’t smell anything that smelled like good bread, only the slight stench of the lake and perhaps the crispness of leaves. I also laughed at his specific insistence that the smell was of “good” bread, and not just your average, ordinary loaf. And so, in the weeks following, I took to periodically exclaiming that it smelled like good bread outside as a small joke that I derived far too much pleasure from.
I’ve never been to San Francisco, and until about a week ago I’d never read about their thriving bread culture. Learning about this small and wonderful story has been just one result of a fascination with bread that has slowly been growing as the semester has unfolded: a fascination that I can’t help but attribute to that moment by the lake. I totally understand that most people don’t spend their free time watching Youtube videos about how bread is made, voraciously reading lists of the best bakeries in the world, or compulsively cataloguing all the puns that can be made out of the word “yeast”. But lately, bread has been rising up everywhere I look, and it’s made me wonder: what does it mean to look at the world around us and smell bread? And what does it mean to insist upon the distinction that this bread is good?
To see our lives in the process of baking would be to trust that we are being kneaded, molded, and warmed into selves that will nourish others. It would mean trusting that a careful Baker is forming our lives with great care, and that we are destined to rise. Perhaps it might also call for a vision of our own unexpected sournesses not as bad but good, with faith that our struggles and sorrows will lend a richness to the dough: a dough that is baking slowly into bread that we have been promised will be. Of course, this is no easy feat, because to look at the world around us and proclaim the smell of good bread is to proclaim all of the aspects of our lives as gift.
To see the world in the process of baking is our challenge as Christians, and the source and summit of this vision of creation is the Eucharist, God’s life-giving bread.
Baking is a process, and at times we may feel that our place in the process is closer to the beginning mayhem of a flour-splattered counter than the ending of a perfect fresh-baked loaf. But each time we come to the Eucharistic feast, we are reminded to praise the process: to proclaim our gratitude for the love of Christ which is molding us into loving loaves through even the messiness and the mayhem. Through the Eucharist, we discover how we are called to look at creation and proclaim that it is good: that it smells like good bread. For, when we receive Christ’s Eucharistic offering, we begin to see all of the aspects of our lives as great gifts of love. Truly, the smell of good bread is everywhere, if our hearts lead our noses to pick up the sacred smell of Christ’s sacrifice of love.
For the Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling, saying, “This is my resting place for ever and ever.”
You better come on in this house, cause it’s gonna rain. Rain down, Zion, it’s gonna rain.
-“Sunday Candy”, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
I don’t listen to rap often, but when I do, I prefer for it to be imbued with tones of Eucharistic self-gift. This may seem like a tall order, but it’s exactly what the listener encounters in the song “Sunday Candy,” featuring a joy-filled gospel choir, the rhymes of Chance the Rapper, the vocals of Jamila Woods, and some tremendously triumphant trumpeting. When Woods begins her hook, the trumpets pause and a church organ reverberates under her words: “You gotta move it slowly/ Take and eat my body like it’s holy”. Chance joins Woods as she repeats this gentle hook a second time, and as their voices meld together in a duet, a theme begins to emerge: one of right-ordered sexuality, the kind that calls us home to what it means to be human. The very title of the song speaks of a call to express our human sexuality in a way that encompasses not only the sweetness and playfulness of candy but also the reverently respected sacredness of a Sunday.
Chance and Jamila are singing for joy: and it’s the sweetness of a relationship in which there is holiness of waiting (“I’ve been waiting for you”) and praying (I’ve been praying for you”), and honestly, it’s a whole lot of fun. In Chance’s words we might even uncover something of the beauty of a relationship in which two draw each other closer to God: “You’re my dreamcatcher, dream team, team captain/ Matter fact, I ain’t seen you in a minute let me take my butt to church”. The desire to see and spend time with his beloved spurs him to church- and rightly so, for as we might add, it is in loving one another well that we enter into the dwelling place of the Lord, who is Love Itself. This notion of the way we love and the way we dwell with God being intertwined comes up again when Chance describes the one he loves in the second verse: ” You sound like why the gospel choir got so tired/ Singin’ his praise on daily basis so I gotta try it”. In other words, the way that she loves sounds like the praise of a gospel choir, a choir that gives fully and to the end, each day. In Chance’s words, a very Christian truth shines through: in the way that we love, we give praise to the Lord, and we come to dwell with Him daily.
Thus, in this song we catch a glimmer of what it means to be truly human: to give of ourselves lovingly and dwell joyfully in the place of the Lord. It means, as the song puts it, to “come on in this house,” into shelter from the rain and into the holy house of Zion. Our call to dwell in this holy place is a call to respond to God’s abundant gift of Himself in the Eucharist by becoming abundant gifts ourselves. Perhaps “Sunday Candy” can be for us a small example of the way that we sing to God with joy through the ways we express our sexuality, a most sweet and sacred thing. It can be reminder of the beauty of relationships in which dwelling with each other leads us to dwell with God. Where Chance speaks of dinner rolls on his plate at Christmas dinner, we can speak of the Eucharist, and of the shelter we find as we allow the Bread we take and eat to form the pattern in which we share ourselves in relationship. We can trust that in the patience and the prayerfulness of this sort of sharing, there is also such great sweetness.
It is an odd fact about my life: I love small things. Small babies, small children, small dogs, tiny cabins, cozy rooms. And since my generation lives in a world driven by images, some better than others, (via Snapchat, Instagram, Tinder, etc) in times when I fall into the stereotype of that image-driven generation, I have spent more time than I care to admit sitting around with girlfriends looking at pictures, or Buzzfeed posts, or YouTube videos, or stories. (Usually, they’re titled something along the lines of, “BABIES TRY LEMONS FOR THE FIRST TIME! THIS IS A HILARIOUS MUST-WATCH.”)
My own affinity for the small, my genuine and deep-seeded love of children, and my desire to protect the innocent is probably rooted in my own psyche and my own life story—but the affinity also stems from an amazement at the reality of the Incarnation. I never cease to marvel at the fact that the Savior of our world came to the world as a tiny, vulnerable, crying, needy infant. The Word who always was allowed Himself to be nurtured and loved into maturity. (That could be another piece, another day.)
And so all of that being said, The Lord of the Rings has always been a place where loves of different sorts collided for me. I find Tolkien’s writing beautifully crafted, his imagination fantastic, and his ability to reflect on deep truths in the lens of myth-making and story-telling absolutely brilliant. I also find hobbits entirely lovable. In fact, for a long time, I loved hobbits simply because of their smallness.
When it came time to write a senior thesis, I eventually settled on writing it about the way the chief four hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin grow in virtue throughout The Lord of the Rings. My chief encourager in this line of thinking stemmed from a place where JRR Tolkien commented that, “…the structure of The Lord of the Rings was, “planned to be ‘hobbito-centric,’ that is, primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble” (Letters 237). As I thought to myself about writing, the process went something like this:
A kind of spirituality of smallness, a’la Therese of Lisieux, check.
Lord of the Rings (a somewhat pathological obsession, my friends will testify), check.
Tolkien’s brilliance from his letters and interviews, check.
And I even managed to throw in something on patristic theories of the atonement. Relationship to historical Christianity, check.
Thoughts about vocation and call (one of my other obsessions)- check.
(An insight to me internally at this point: ALL OF THE THINGS I NERD OUT ABOUT WERE ABOUT TO BE IN ONE PLACE.)
“THIS IS SO GREAT!” I thought. “I’ll write all about hobbits, and why we love them, and why it’s beautiful that they’re small, and how important their smallness is to who they are, and yadda-yadda-yadda- yadda” (I can rant to myself for quite a long while). But sometimes, something happens when you write. Sometimes, you find that you were quite wrong in your instincts. Delving into a topic means that you have to permit your long-held ideas and conceptions to grow and mature. And at times, to be crushed. (Gulp.)
It turned out that my own instincts about the place of humility, smallness, and the little in Tolkien’s fictional world were (quite simply) wrong. Not all wrong, but mostly wrong. I had an idealistic and romantic vision in my head of Tolkien’s hobbits as a preferred race, a race we ought to love and value for nothing more than their small, quiet ways of life and their quaint customs. The work I did delving into Tolkien’s own thoughts quickly and totally crushed that tendency towards over-romanticization of the small and childlike in Middle Earth out of me. The Ring cycle is still definitely about the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble. BUT, I came to find, this means we ought to appreciate the hobbits who willingly and freely undergo the process of what it takes to be sanctified and ennobled; we should not overtly romanticize the entire race.
Even though the trilogy thematically focuses on the “sanctification of the humble,” the situation is not so simple as loving hobbits because they are small, comical, innocent people who enjoy gardening and over-eating and time with family. Tolkien’s hobbits are often endearing and comic characters, to be sure, but it is not endearing-ness alone that makes one a saint, or Tolkien’s fictional equivalent of one. Simply put, the hobbits of Middle Earth who become heroes are revered because they demonstrate the Church’s definition of sanctity; they exhibit levels of heroic virtue.
The Catechism, in a compilation of the Tradition, says that:
A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions (CCC 1803).
So the fictional saint-making in the context of The Lord of the Rings stems from how our hero hobbits reacted to adversity and what exactly they did with the roads set before them– not from an innate sanctification via innocence and ignorance. On those paths, the hobbits themselves were “enlarged” and “sanctified” for the sake of all of Middle Earth, because they continually tended toward and chose the good. (Though not always; saints in our real histories aren’t perfect either, but we can’t treat that here).
The hobbits Sam, Merry, and Pippin demonstrate a heroic faithfulness for the sake of friendship, coupled with a steadfast courage that persons of their size and background should never have had. Frodo demonstrates a willingness to die for the sake of the entirety of the people of Middle Earth. Effectively, they all are given grace (by an unnamed providence, in this fictional context) in order to continue persevering in the realities presented to them. Take, for example, the hobbit Sam’s reflection on heroes that he shares with Frodo:
“…We shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to just have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten….” (Tolkien 711).
It is true, unfortunately, that a post of this nature can’t possibly capture the entirety of the thesis– nor treat all of the nuances involved fairly. But suffice to say, the more I studied and expanded my understanding, the more I came to love Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. I saw just how much they all grew in courage, how much they sacrificed their own wants, totally abandoned any understanding of personal safety for the sake of friendship, loyalty, duty, or even a more complex understanding about the good of all. By the end of things, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin all actually had been “enlarged, or sanctified,” as Tolkien had desired to show, because they had acquired and continually acted with levels of courage, fortitude, and loyalty that absolutely none of the “Big People” ever expected hobbits to exemplify.
Although (alas) hobbits are fictional, many of us- myself very much included- feel ourselves to be hobbit-like in the scheme of the wider world. We feel small, or sometimes insignificant, or at the least unprepared for the path that has been set before our feet— for the illness of a family member, for the loss of a job, for loneliness in our own path, for difficulties with children, for the impossibility of a class load, for difficulty with responsibilities that “by rights” as Sam would say, we shouldn’t have. But understanding Tolkien’s thought means that if we understand ourselves as a “hobbit in faith,” we do not have the ability to flee to our respective Shires. We cannot content ourselves with pipe-smoking, gardening, entertaining family, and the like. There’s a huge key here to understanding vocation: understanding how we are called to respond to God and the realities of our lives does not mean constantly longing for peace and quiet and a return to (or discovery of) a place of safety.
For evil to be defeated in this world, we have to cooperate with the hand of Providence, even when that means the Way before us is frighteningly unknown or dangerous or not what we expected. To be a hobbit in faith means that we courageously continue, whatever the road before us, knowing that if we keep trying to follow the will of God, good may come of our current Road—even if this means a great deal of suffering and scarring on our part. Sam’s thought on this in the darkest of times communicates this more eloquently:
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (Tolkien 922).
Evil, and evil’s affinity for self-deception, will mean that child-like humility and a recognition of one’s smallness may allow for the grace of God to work in ways that will surprise all of us. The Road does not ever quite end, as Tolkien says; “it goes on and on.” It is our part to follow, and to keep following that Road that is at our feet, knowing that Christ is Himself our Road and our Way. We are all homo-viator: man on the journey, pilgrims seeking heaven. Thus, to be a hobbit in faith means to accept the Road that one’s feet have been set on, even if we in no way sought out our particular path, or even if we fear where the Road might be leading in the short term. And so we accept our Road, knowing that Christ our light, Christ our Way, Christ the beautiful, and Christ the victorious seeks us as we continue journeying Home.
Springtime means a number of things. It means the smell of freshly cut grass, the return of thunderstorms, and the bane of allergies. But this springtime through this reflection brings together two of my favorite things in a new way. It brings together a) baseball and b) a concrete example of a way that theological thought—the way we think about and grow in our faith—truly does impact our daily lives.
The connection here is a little more subtle than a church softball league, so I will explain. In the baseball movie classic Field of Dreams, a down-on-his-luck Iowa farmer begins (without really understanding why) building a baseball diamond in his cornfields. He is prompted to do this by a few rather mystical experiences, including the whispered, repeated phrase, “If you build it, he will come.”
My home diocese, the Diocese of Knoxville in Tennessee, isn’t building a baseball diamond. But she is embarking on a building adventure of her own. This past weekend, members from all corners of the diocese (along with leaders of the wider Church) came together to celebrate the groundbreaking of the building project for a new Cathedral. Originally, when Pope John Paul II created the Diocese of Knoxville in 1988 by splitting it from Nashville, the already existing Sacred Heart Parish was chosen because of its size and central location to serve as the Cathedral parish. But the diocese has grown and changed in the last twenty-five years, and with it, the Cathedral parish demographics have increased and changed dramatically. In deciding to build a Cathedral, Catholics of East Tennessee are coming together to build; we are remembering and honoring the past and (short) history of our diocese and we are getting ready for the future, for a new chapter in which we will stand more on our own feet as a maturing diocese.
Although I was privileged to go home for the weekend and participate in the events associated with the groundbreaking, I have mostly been watching this entire process unfold from afar. My home diocese has been my home in many ways for nearly my whole life. As a daughter of the Diocese who loves her home, while living (in happy exile) away from home and majoring in Theology at Notre Dame, I have been geeking out quite a bit as it all transpires.
I am watching my home Church come together, work together, and learn together about why and how we think about our sacred spaces in the way that we do. I am seeing tutorials on the meaning behind church architecture reach people; I am watching as people transition from hesitancy about the need for a new Cathedral to excitement, pride, and willingness to go the distance and to be a part of this effort. I am seeing a countless number of individuals devote their time, their talents, and their efforts in order to make all of this happen. And most importantly, I am seeing first-hand the way that physically building a new Cathedral church is teaching, forming, and building up the Body of Christ in East Tennessee.
This weekend, I saw hundreds and hundreds of people work together and come together for this moment. (Apparently the final count was 1200 local folks, 12 bishops, 3 cardinals, a governor, and two mayors.) This time in Knoxville diocesan history clearly has become a teaching and formational moment. It has taught and re-taught us about our need to worship God rightly so that we may live rightly, not just as the parish of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but as the entire diocese and all of her members. The tagline of the Cathedral campaign itself packs a theological punch about this rightly ordered way of looking at church building: “Home, Where We Worship, Teach, and Serve.”
Thinking about building, thinking about the seasons of life, and deciding to build has helped all of us who call ourselves a part of the diocese of Knoxville to realize that the Mass, the liturgy, and the life of the Church (both local and universal) is not simply about “we the people.” The Church is actually about the Trinity; the Church only exists because the love of the Trinity overflowed and continues to overflow to creation. God’s overflowing, self-giving, and ever-expanding love explains the basic fact of why we are here. But reflecting on God’s love also helps us understand the fitting priority list for our lives and that if we don’t worship rightly we cannot live rightly—and this is why I’m so proud of the “Worship, Teach, Serve” tagline.
Reflecting on worship and on what it means to build a fitting space for the “home base” of the Diocese (the baseball jokes continue) also means something else. It means that we realize our lives of faith mean more than the sense of community or feeling of belonging that we encounter when we gather for the liturgy. In the Mass and in other liturgies, we (the people of God) participate and pray in hope and in confidence of the fulfillment of God’s promises to us.
But we ourselves, though we are the people and the assembly of God, are not actually the main focus of the liturgy. The Mass and the liturgical life of the Church is not meant to inspire and entertain us, so that we come back next time for more. The liturgical life of the Church is meant to take all of us up into the love of the Trinity, so that we glorify our Creator and are strengthened by the sacraments in order that we may then go out and participate in the work of the Trinity. We do this by helping to sanctify the world with Christ’s love and Christ’s beauty. Paraphrasing Mother Teresa, we make something beautiful for God by our lives and our loves.
There’s a pertinent phrase in liturgical theology “lex orandi, lex credendi” that can help us think about this. It means that the law of prayer is the law of belief, or more colloquially, what we say in prayer reflects what we truly believe. Building decisions with churches and with this cathedral extends this “lex orandi, lex credendi” to “lex aedificandi, lex credendi.” Aedificandi means build, and so what we build and the way we build it reflects what we believe, too. In his book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, Denis McNamara says that “architecture is the built form of ideas; church architecture is the built form of theology. As go the ideas, so goes the architecture . . . all architectural decisions are theological decisions.”
Actually, the self-gift (kenosis) of Christ on the Cross forever changed the way that we see our lives and think about beauty. Because Christ’s gift of Himself to the point of death transformed even the worst suffering into the opportunity to give and in that giving to become something beautiful for God, everything in our lives can be transformed by Christ’s work on our behalf. Here and now, in our local churches, we have a chance to give of ourselves, in our daily life. This occurs for Christians all over the world in a significant way through the celebration of the liturgy. By investing prayer, thought, time, energy, and our own personal resources into the building of our local churches (both physically and metaphorically) we also participate in another way in that mystery of self-gift and self-emptying in order to help build the Kingdom of God in new ways.**
In the book Theology in Stone by Richard Kieckhefer, this theological understanding that what we build and the way we build it says something about what we believe is inferred from the title itself. Kieckhefer also makes the comment that
“art in a religious setting can serve as a sacrament of grace, and the capacity to see oneself as worthy of beauty is one dimension of recognizing oneself as by grace made worthy for grace—the sole condition for beginning to receive it” (99).
Our churches should be fitting, beautiful places for God to be housed, where we can enter more deeply into the mysteries of the Faith so that we can recognize that we are called to be where God is—because God is worthy of the beautiful. And since God is the author and source of all beauty, and since our ultimate call is to become more like God, we are worthy to sit and contemplate God’s love and God’s beauty in beautiful places so that in better understanding God’s beauty we can go into the world and share that beauty.
So how is a building project or thinking about building up and supporting a local church practicing Easter?
Many of our first readings in the Lectionary this time of the year are drawn from the Acts of the Apostles, where we hear the stories of the early Church growing and building, coming together to break bread and to hear the Word of God. In East Tennessee, we are building and re-building our growing local church, so that we may have a place to come together as an entire diocese. Like the members of the early Church, we do this so that we may hear the Word of God in the Scriptures and break bread together in the Eucharist. The book of Ecclesiastes helps us think about this in another way highlighting tbe seasonal, liturgical factor of life. There is a season for everything. The season of spring is baseball season, like I mentioned earlier. But in East Tennessee this year, spring is also church-building season. It is a stone-moving season, and a planting season for the seeds of faith.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together” (Eccl 3:1–5a)
At the end of his own season of building in Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella realizes that his baseball diamond building project was not about the baseball players who came, or the field for its own sake. Instead, it was actually about re-building his relationship with his own father, through a simple coming together in playing a game of catch. At the end of Field of Dreams, Ray is asked by his father, “Is this heaven?” Ray responds by stammering out, “…This.. it’s… it’s Iowa…”
In the movie Field of Dreams, because of his building project, Ray experiences the healing and growth of relationships in his life, including his father. The comparison with the Cathedral project in Knoxville wasn’t meant to be trite. Because in the building and completion of a Cathedral for the Church in East Tennessee (or anywhere where the people of God continue to build) we see a closer glimpse into the call of our eternal relationships with our Heavenly Father and with each other. Our Father in Heaven wants much more than the time spent in a game of catch with us; He wants time with us for all of eternity. The glimpses of that heavenly call show us little glances of the beauty of God’s image for the world in His new, restored creation made possible for us by Christ’s defeat of death and promise of eternal life.
East Tennessee isn’t heaven. But I swear, sometimes, it is pretty close. And I do think that the new Cathedral, upon its completion, will be a little bit like a glimpse into heaven.
**We obviously do this too by the way we serve the wider people of God. The website for the campaign, http://www.sacredheartcampaign.org/, puts it this way: “While we aspire to glorify God through our worship, we plan to continue our work to help the poor. The Diocese of Knoxville provides over $6 million in ongoing charitable services to the poor and marginalized every year. Over the next 5 years, we will have spent more on charitable initiatives than we will have spent on the building of the cathedral.”
When Clint Eastwood’s 2008 movie Gran Torino first came out, I had no interest in seeing it. From what I could tell, it was just another movie with Clint Eastwood being violent but this time he was violent and old. When a friend showed it to me recently, I was surprised and moved to find it’s a story about sensitivity, vulnerability, and redemption.
Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, the last Caucasian in a Detroit neighborhood of Hmong refugees from Laos. His wife has died and he is frustrated that the Hmong have not cared for the neighborhood. Gangs gain control. Walt, a hardened Korean War vet, has no patience for this.
When marauding gangsters try to coerce his young next-door neighbor into joining, Walt appears with his Army rifle and threatens to kill them if they harass the boy again. When they do, Walt trails one of the gang members and beats him. It’s hard for the viewer not to rejoice a little at Walt’s skilled and efficient justice.
But the violence worsens and Walt’s anger with it. While he’s been a vigilante peacekeeper who desires justice or at least a quiet neighborhood, he becomes genuinely furious. The man who hates neighborhood disrepair tears up his house, punching cabinets and kicking furniture. Presumably his anger is at the gangsters.
He plots some unnamed vengeance and goes to the gang’s house, where he clearly wants confrontation. Gangsters stand outside, guns ready. He takes out a cigarette. “Do you have light?” he asks the thugs. He answers for them. “Oh . . . I’ve got light.” He reaches into his jacket to pull out a gun. They fire. He falls back to the ground, arms stretched outward.
All he has is his old lighter.
The police arrive and the viewer realizes Walt never brought a gun. He had no intention of killing anyone or of setting anything afire. He wanted the gang members to kill him so they’d be arrested.
When he hits the ground he’s on his back, arms perpendicular to his body. It’s not hard to see the meaning.
Walt, the drinking, cursing, threatening vet — a powerful man who makes himself a lamb and leads himself to the slaughter. His death brings light into a troubled world.
Walt is life and light. After so much retribution he sees it’s his own death, death by yielding and not firing, that can shed any light. In retrospect one sees his earlier frenzied anger was not at the gangsters; it was at himself for creating more violence. What he brings to light is not merely the gangsters’ guilt. He restores calm and peace in a community that is no longer what it once was. By his death Walt restores the right order.
This is what the Paschal Mystery does. Christ’s suffering does not only forgive sins; it does not only eliminate what’s bad. It begins doing work that might be harder: showing us what’s good. This happens in two ways. First, Christ’s death sets the example we are to follow. “Christ suffered for you and left you an example” not to edify you or make you complacent but “to have you follow in his footsteps.” (1 Pt 2:21) Second, in destroying death Christ also actually restores life to creation. It is finished, God says, and it is good.
As the Church draws closer to Calvary, we might do well to recall where we’ve been. At Christmas the Church nestled by the manger and sang, “O come, let us adore Him.” On Friday someone will lift the cross and process down the aisle from the back of the church. The joyous Christmas hymn will mutate into a mournful strain: “Behold the wood of the cross, on which was hung our salvation. O come, let us adore.” Christmas and the Cross culminate in the same call to adore: let us adore God being born, adore God dying.
Three days later the Paschal Candle will travel the same slow path down through the church and become the new center of our attention. Its light spread in our candles will fill the whole church. The priest might intone, “Lumen Christi.” The light of Christ. We might think, “Lumen Crucis.” The light of the Cross.
From the Cross shines light that is never snuffed out. In the burning bush, God shone forth in a fire and revealed his very name; he revealed: God is. At the Cross, other wood becomes the instrument of God’s self-revelation. That wood does not burn; God Incarnate blazes on it and reveals: God is love. When God said, “I AM,” He revealed his entirety, yet there is always more to learn of Him. On the Cross we see the meaning of His words, “I AM the light of the world” (Jn 8:12; 9:5b).
Christ’s blinding light does not diminish with His death but grows. “The light shineth in the darkness,” says John, “and the darkness comprehended it not.” (Jn 1:5, KJV) The darkness has neither understood nor overcome the light. Perhaps Satan thought Jesus would lose His power when He died. Perhaps Judas thought financial woes would end with some silver. Perhaps Pilate thought his political crises would disappear.
But as is always the case, God did far more than anyone expected. Far from snuffing out Christ’s light, His death attests to it all the more. The light expands, widens and rises with His death because in death we begin to see Him more clearly. Because of how He breathed His last the centurion can say, even before the Resurrection, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mk 14:39).
“Oh, I’ve got light,” says Walt Kowalski. His light is neither the firearm he’s presumed to bear nor the old Army lighter he’s actually carrying. The real light is in what he’s doing—suffering for his neighbors because he wants them to flourish. This is the kind of light that illumines the Christian’s path. Like the light that fires the Christian heart. The Cross’ fire and the Resurrection’s dawn are the same light.
Crucem tuam adoramus, Domine: et sanctam resurrectionem tuam laudamus et glorificamus: ecce enim propter lignum venit gaudium in universo mundo.
We adore your cross, O Lord, and we praise and glorify your holy resurrection: behold, by this very wood joy has come into the whole world.
About a week and a half ago, I journeyed to the March for Life in Washington, D.C. with nearly 700 fellow students from the Notre Dame, St. Mary’s, and Holy Cross community. I tried on the way there to write a “Why We March” piece. And then I tried on the way back to turn the bits and pieces of thoughts into a “Why We Marched” reflection. This may come as a shocker, but bumpy, overnight, cross-country bus rides are not the most conducive writing environments.
Bus rides may not be good for writing, but they are good for pondering, and I pondered one thought all along the way. The thought was the quote: “It is good that you exist,” and it tied my whole March for Life 2015 experience together from beginning to end. I remembered reading a line of Pope Benedict XVI’s talking about how it is important for people to know: “It is good that you exist.” (To give fair credit where it’s due, the quote was probably in my mind because of this recent post from Elizabeth Scalia over at the Patheos blog network.) I wondered about using the quote as a sort of posture in which to march and to carry the spirit of the March forward into the rest of the year—expressing that to be pro-life is to say: “It is good that you exist” to all of humanity, from conception to natural death.
This “It is good that you exist” reflection comes from Pope Benedict XVI’s 2011 Christmas address to the Roman Curia. During the address, Pope Benedict reflected on the joy that he had experienced at World Youth Day. The full quote is a gift, and so you’ll find it here:
“Where does it [joy] come from? How is it to be explained? Certainly, there are many factors at work here. But in my view, the crucial one is this certainty, based on faith: I am wanted; I have a task in history; I am accepted, I am loved. Josef Pieper, in his book on love, has shown that man can only accept himself if he is accepted by another. He needs the other’s presence, saying to him, with more than words: it is good that you exist. Only from the You can the I come into itself. Only if it is accepted, can it accept itself. Those who are unloved cannot even love themselves. This sense of being accepted comes in the first instance from other human beings. But all human acceptance is fragile. Ultimately we need a sense of being accepted unconditionally. Only if God accepts me, and I become convinced of this, do I know definitively: it is good that I exist. It is good to be a human being.”
In fact, that idea of peoples’ necessity to know, “It is good that you exist” must have been a theme for Pope Benedict XVI, because years earlier, (as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) he had written,
“If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: “It is good that you exist” – must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love” (Principles of Catholic Theology, 74).
The ‘theme’ this year for the March was “Every Life is a Gift.” But I think that we can only say and mean, “Every Life is a Gift” if we affirm to the most vulnerable in our world the goodness of existence.
So to be pro-life in this line of thought means to say, by act, in prayer, by attention, with tenderness, with “the act of the entire being that we call love” the following: It is wonderfully good that you exist, young mothers, isolated and scared of facing the realities of an unintended pregnancy. It is so, so good that you exist, beautiful little ones with Downs Syndrome. It is very good that you exist, men who have no idea how or if you’re going to be a father. We are so grateful that you exist, grandmothers and grandfathers who are tired, and sick, and aren’t sure how much time you have. You are loved for who you are, not what you can do or will do or will never do. You are loved because you exist.*
There are some other beautiful examples of how this kind of love can come about. One of my favorite examples comes from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. In it, John Ames writes to his young son, saying: “But it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”
That image of John Ames loving his young son simply for his existence in a way that aligns with the thought of Pope Benedict XVI is just about the most pro-life posture I can imagine, if we have the courage to extend it to those we encounter. What if we loved each person in our world in the same way? Each woman, man, and child on this earth—especially those whom, by all appearances, the world is willing to throw away—needs to know they are dearly loved and supported and treasured. They are loved by God and also by us, even if they never felt that or knew that until now. They need to know it with more than just words; they need to know with tangible support and time and love. We need to reach out, to tell them: “It is good that you exist.”
We know that we can only love, as 1 John 4 says, because “[God] first loved us.” In and through the mystery of faith, we are invited to love people with God’s love so that they may know that God loves them. Our human love may only be a shadow and a tiny foretaste of our heavenly Father’s tender love for His children, but we need each other in order to know that it is good that we exist. We need each other, so that ultimately we may all turn together in adoration, with our whole hearts and lives to the ultimate love, who poured Himself out for us on the Cross.
This is why the posture of “It is good that you exist” can help extend the witness of the March. It means taking the experience of the solidarity of the hundreds of thousands of people on the March for Life, joyously shouting the slogans like, “We love babies!” and “Pro-Woman, Pro-Life!” and turning that passion and joy into a tangible part of the daily Christian life. The Notre Dame Right to Life Club already does this in very admirable ways, by supporting the pregnancy resource center near campus, organizing visits to nursing homes and having game nights with the elderly, and working with the Hannah Project, spending time with children and adults with a variety of disabilities. All of these pro-life activities state by their collective actions, by their decisions and their time, and by their attention to the individual that it is good that people exist.
This is idealistic, I know, and one post cannot engage all of the arguments and intricacies surrounding those who have suffered because of abortion or other hurts and sins against human dignity all over the world. But I hope that this post can serve as encouragement, as a suggestion for a way of “moving on” from the March for Life. This way proclaims by word, by deed, by attention to the most vulnerable a very simple message: you are loved for your very existence. That is good that we exist. It is good that you, beloved child of God, exist, and it always will be.
*(We could go on to refer to immigrants and refugees, the homeless, the mentally ill . . . obviously, the pro-life movement doesn’t get the monopoly on calling existence “good”: God beat us all to it in the first days of creation. See Gn 1.)
As human beings, we love being told that we did something well. We love knowing that we accomplished something, no matter how small. Affirmations of our doing define our development in many ways: the gold star stickers we received in grade school stuck with many of us for a long time, particularly those of us with type-A, overachieving, book-smart tendencies. We recognize one another for actions, words, and ways of living.
It is all too easy to allow this interpretation of affirmation and identity to distort our understanding of love. Love quickly becomes something earned, something merited. Our goodness is grounded in how much we have offered to the world and in what capacity; our person is defined by how we choose to live, where we spend our time, what we do. We come to see love as something to be deserved, a reward for our accomplishments.
In ‘the real world,’ most interactions do tend to occur through this lens of achievement and are a function of the identity we construct and project of ourselves. One’s very being, the most human self, is of little relevance, compared to tangible actions and words that seek and deserve thanks and praise. This understanding of love, one that is far too weak, is thus only intensified. There are few medicines for this twisted vision of being.
A visit to the place where we feel most at home, however, can begin to reorient this vision. The place where we are most fully ourselves is the place where actions and doing matter a great deal less. We recognize this place as home because we know how to be there, with its familiar order of things. Home is the place where our hearts are warmed simply because we are there, existing and being the human creatures we are, created in and for love. We are reminded that we have already been called and claimed.
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)
For the Christian, the reorientation begins with the fact that he is not called for his action, but called to action.
“Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born
I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am
only a boy.’
But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,’ says the Lord.’” (Jeremiah 1:4-8)
Love is not offered as an affirmation of our doing; rather, our lives are meant to be responses in gratitude to the love that God freely shares in the creation and continued affirmation of our very being. The Christian vocation is to live into the fullness of this reality, opening oneself to this freely given love and seeking to offer that same love in thanksgiving for the gift of being. The affirmation of the beauty of the human being is already present in God’s very creation; the life of the Christian is not intended to cultivate this affirmation, but rather a gratitude and praise freely expressed in love.
“While on earth this is our calling: learn to bear the beams of love. We are sent to live for others, sent on mission from above; Though we tremble at love’s burden,
it is easy, it is light; As we seek eternal splendor, may our souls with love burn bright.” —Peter Fisher Hesed, Partners in the Mission
The words of Peter Hesed’s anthem Partners in the Mission again remind us of the need for this reorientation.
Our lives must be an offering of thanksgiving, a response to the Christian mission of self-giving love. We are sent into the world that we may learn to carry this love and joy with us. The weight of this mission to be God’s love can seem overwhelmingly heavy, but, in reality, it is incredibly light. We are loved and affirmed in our very being, not burdened by a task of creating and earning love. Our vocation and a life of seeking its realization are a response to our belovedness and the gift of the human capacity to love. The Christian life must be offered in gratitude for the freely offered gift of life, love, and God Himself.
We need to remind ourselves of this and to be the reminder of this to one another. In our living, we must remember that we are still learning to bear this love that already is and has already been offered to us. In our discernment and seeking to discover ourselves, we need to tremble a little less and love a little more, for the greatest affirmation comes from God in our very creation and being.
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at this disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (Mk 8:27–33)
As a young child at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Alcoa, TN, I was always deeply puzzled by this reading. A renowned brown-noser in school myself, I always felt for Peter. One minute, he bestows the perfectly correct answer (Jesus is the Messiah) and the next he receives a rousing rebuke from the Word made flesh.
My own reading of the text, of course, has matured over the years. I now understand that the kind of messiah that Peter expected would function with far more political power than Jesus seemed willing to take up himself. He would conquer Rome and re-build the Temple. He would expand the state of Israel to its proper size and scope. He would rule from the throne like David.
How disappointing it must have been for Peter to have heard these political hopes deconstructed by the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Unlike the deconstructionists of our own day, Jesus offers another vision of what it means to be the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of Man. The text continues:
He call the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life with lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?’ (Mk 8:34–36)
It is not power politics that Jesus employs. It is not a violent revolution where one system of ideas replaces another. Rather, the messianic advent of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, is nothing less than the introduction of a new divine politics. It is the politics where self-emptying love (kenosis) is the virtue of the day. Where love unto the end is the stump speech. Where the victory is achieved not in front of thousands of supporters in a hotel ballroom but in the divine solitude of the Cross.
The revolution of self-sacrificial love that Jesus enacts came to mind as I read the Facebook feeds of friends last evening throughout the United States. Some were overjoyed that the Republicans had defeated the Democrats, bringing about a new political order in which now justice and truth would reign. Others saw the take-over of the Senate as the defeat of all truth and goodness. In both cases, one perceived a sense that either salvation was at hand or that God’s glory had left creation altogether.
Perhaps, there is something about the human condition in which we are constantly looking for political messiahs, those who will usher in the kingdom of justice and peace desired by the human heart. Yet, we should not be surprised to find ourselves continually disappointed that men and women in political office fail to embody our greatest hopes for what it means to be a nation, a community of justice and peace. Human beings are in need of a savior, but not one who comes to us wearing an American flag pin on his or her lapel.
Salvation is only obtainable by those who unite themselves to the messianic peace of the Kingdom of God. In the coming weeks, we will celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. The Church will pray in her Eucharistic Liturgy:
For you anointed your Only Begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, with the oil of gladness as eternal Priest and King of all creation, so that, by offering himself on the altar of the Cross as a spotless sacrifice to bring us peace, he might accomplish the mysteries of human redemption and, making all created things subject to his rule, he might present to the immensity of your majesty an eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace. (Eucharistic Preface)
The kingship of Christ finds its foundation not in political slogans or polling numbers. Rather, it is founded upon the weakness of the Cross, a politics in which holding onto control at all costs is nothing less than a sign of sin itself.
Our present political system is suffering from this sin. It is full of advertisements in which one party attempts to defeat another by molding the truth to whatever the polls say. Rather than engage in any form of authentic dialogue, clichés and slogans rule the discourse of the day. Women and men are willing to do whatever it takes to hold onto power, whether that involves telling vicious lies about an opponent or spending obscene quantities of money in campaigns that now last for years. In the end, the election of whatever political messiah we support leads to further disappointment and ennui. Perhaps, the latter is the reason that turnout for elections is often so low.
If Christians are to engage in this system (and at least to me, we must), we need to engage in a non-messianic form of politics. We bring to the political arena a vision shaped by the peaceful messianism of Christ the King. We bring to this politics an awareness of human frailty, a sense that human beings will not create the perfect society. As Patrick Deneen writes:
Democracy is not premised upon the eventual perfection of our imperfect city nor the citizens who reside therein but precisely upon the permanent presence of imperfect humans who must, by dint of their equal insufficiency and the permanency of need, inhabit, and govern together, cities of men. (Patrick J. Deneen, Democratic Faith, 116)
The path forward, for those who call themselves Christians and political beings alike, is not merely to publicly confess Christ in the midst of elections. Rather, it is to allow our vision of humanity, our sense of politics as ultimately a non-salvific action, to influence political discourse at the local and national level.
Ultimately, this mid-term election will not be our last “crowning” of the new political messiah. The messianic discourse will pick up in the coming days as our attention is violently turned to the 2016 elections. Presidential candidates will tell us that only they will be able to transform the economy, bring equal rights to all, save us from moral degradation and from terrorists and from poverty and from disease and from all that goes bump in the night.
It is our responsibility as Christians to beware of political messiahs, to those who promise that they will build the kingdom. Christ alone comes to transform humanity into one, peaceful kingdom. Until then, our political action must seek truth and goodness, justice and love, with a deep awareness that we remain fragile, sinful creatures who are still learning to love unto the end.
One of the most difficult yet beautiful ways to approach transition is to reorient one’s vision of that which comes to a close to instead become that which sends forth. This is one of the lessons I learned over and over again during my time at Notre Dame, as we looked ever more earnestly at a future that called us into the world.
My experience serving as a mentor and program assistant for Notre Dame Vision welcomed me into a community of faith and a particular way of seeing the world; yet, at the end of each week long conference, the participants—and even more so the mentors-in-faith—were told bluntly and repeatedly that the experience of Vision, their gifts, and their very lives are not about them. The unceasing mission of self-gift emerged: We have been a part of this community in order that we may offer our lives to make other communities better.
The Notre Dame Folk Choir taught me by unfailing example the wonder of unconditional love, the joy of song in the Christian life, and the gift of receiving the Eucharist in community with those with whom we share so much. The transition from this faith community at a Catholic university to parish life must be an immersive opportunity to offer this joy and life, rather than allowing this past to be simply a personal memory. We have been so that we may now live.
Commencement Weekend in May 2014 was not a nostalgic review of the past four years; it was a celebration not merely of what we had experienced but even more so of that which we had been offered and the gifts that had been cultivated within each of us. Inherent to this coming to a close is a sending forth, a continuing journey through which we are called to “pass it on.” In his Commencement Address, Rev. Ray Hammond demanded that we both remember and live into the Christian vocation of self-gift:
“My fervent prayer is that you will always remember the gift of grace you have received—the grace of parents who love you, the grace of friends who embrace you, the grace of teachers who have taught you, and the grace of opportunities that lay before you. And for your sake and God’s sake I pray that you pass it on.”
This mission to pass it on is one of action, a grace embodied and a love made tangible. Yet, this being sent forth and command to share what we have received is difficult to reconcile with our current states of life; we, as young adults, are still learning, still being formed. We are in graduate school and professional school, transitioning into adulthood, taking ownership of our faith while working in a secular world. The life of the young adult is increasingly a tension between a heart bursting with gratitude and a mind still being cultivated that can too easily become paralyzing.
In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI writes of the necessity of transforming the gift of love received into a capacity to give oneself in love:
“Faith, worship and ethos are interwoven as a single reality which takes shape in our encounter with God’s agape. Here the usual contraposition between worship and ethics simply falls apart. ‘Worship’ itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality of both being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented. Conversely, as we shall have to consider in greater detail below, the ‘commandment’ of love is only possibly because it is more than a requirement. Love can be ‘commanded’ because it has first been given” (14).
My own experience in graduate school thus far has been frustrating, too often seeming intangible and leaving me to feel restless, a hoarder of knowledge with no apparent end. Participating in the celebration of the Eucharist and being sent forth at the end of a liturgy only to move into the classroom at the other end of the hall can seem futile; after all, how can this classroom be the setting in which the Eucharist can pass over into a concrete practice of love? The hours of reading and writing can seem irrelevant to a life meant to be shared, a love meant to be freely given.
I must remind myself that there must be a balance; just as I have been a part of other communities in order to learn lessons that I am now called to share, this experience is such that I might serve better in the future. And, yet, “passing it on” cannot wait—it must be now. This tension must be lived into, finding concrete ways to embody the love I have been freely given and offer in gratitude the love that the Eucharist capacitates the Christian to share. Continued formation does not preclude present self-gift. This requires the constant reorientation to a vision of the Christian life as a pilgrimage, an ongoing journey that is formed both through the reception of a love that sends forth and the response of self-gift that seeks to fulfill the Eucharistic vocation.
Confession: I love pop culture, particularly as it’s expressed through the films of Walt Disney Studios. Films like Aladdin, characters like the Yzma and Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove, iconic images like the sun piercing the clouds over Pride Rock as a baboon holds aloft the future Lion King—these are some of the greatest expressions of American pop culture ever produced. And the pop continues. With the release of Frozen this past year, Disney has outdone itself in terms of producing a film that not only immediately entered the cultural mainstream, but has also been hailed by many a film critic as “an instant classic.”
Another, more dangerous confession: when I left the theatre after watching Frozen with my sweet little six-year-old niece, I was ambivalent. I was not joyously floored as I had been after seeing Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King or The Princess and the Frog for the first time. Initially, I kept my thoughts to myself, mostly because I didn’t want to upset my niece or my family and friends who loved the movie, but also because it seemed that any ambivalence or (heaven forbid) critique regarding Frozen was met with dismissal, rejection, or just plain outrage. People REALLY love this movie.
Diplomatic armchair film critic that I am, I figured that there might in fact be something wrong with me (wouldn’t be the first time), and that I needed to give the movie another shot. Watching Frozen a second and even third time, I noticed some delightful elements that I had failed to appreciate fully in the first viewing. Example: the clever way that Disney essentially makes fun of its previous films by critiquing the “love at first sight” trope with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Or the beautifully moving depiction of love in its familial, platonic, and yes, romantic forms. Or, most importantly, the affirmation that true love puts others’ needs before its own. This assertion is, in the final analysis, the gift of Frozen, an assertion that, one could argue, find resonances in Scripture. Anna’s sacrifice, made in love to save her sister, carries Christian overtones, and perhaps even calls to viewers’ minds the words of Jesus himself: “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). Yet, despite this message of self-giving love, and despite the stunning visuals and the breathtaking animation, something still didn’t quite ring true for me, and recently I finally realized what it was: the music.
Anyone who has ever watched a movie, Disney or otherwise, is well aware of the power of music. Music helps to tell the story of the film in a way that enhances the narrative, even transcends the actors’ performances. Without music, we’d never know that a great white shark was lurking just beneath the water’s surface, and Forrest Gump would just be a guy on a nice long run. Movie musicals harness this power on an even higher level as the characters themselves break into song, and Disney movie musicals on a level still higher than that, for in Disney films, there is always that one song that stands out above the rest—that one song that distills the narrative into a singable form, enriches the central message with melody and harmony, and makes a merely memorable story truly unforgettable. In point of fact, that one song serves as a musical icon—it enables us to enter into the film, even without sitting down to watch it. Think for a moment about the great Disney songs from just the past 25 years: “Part of Your World,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” “Colors of the Wind”—all of these songs present the foundational narrative of the film in miniature form. These songs convey the essence, the heart of their respective films: when you hear the lyrics of “Circle of Life,” you know that The Lion King is about finding, accepting, and living out who you were created to be. Thus, in the Wonderful World of Disney, as in the world of musicals (and really just the world in general), when there is something really important to say, you never *just* say it. You sing it. And if you’re going to sing it in a Disney film, you have to make sure that it’s a message that rings true by upholding virtues in the hero or heroine and alerting us to the vices of the villain.
Which brings us to the songs of Frozen. While the melodies are unbelievably catchy, the lyrics range from hilariously ironic (“In Summer”) to mildly pedestrian (“For the First Time in Forever”). Most importantly, there is no one song that encapsulates the film’s central message. Put simply, Frozen’s signature song, the now-ubiquitous pop culture phenomenon “Let It Go,” doesn’t bear the moral weight of the powerful theme conveyed in the rest of the film, which is that love sacrifices the self for the good of the other.
Rather, “Let It Go” actually contradicts that theme (albeit with an incredibly catchy, can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head, sing-it-at-the-top-of-your-lungs melody), with lyrics celebrating self-centeredness (“Turn away and slam the door; / I don’t care what they’re going to say…”), self-preservation (“I’m never going back—the past is in the past”), and even moral relativism (“No right, no wrong, no rules for me—I’m free!”). Most distressingly, it seems that Elsa has decided to embrace the perception others have of her as some sort of monster, belting unapologetically near the song’s climactic moment: “That perfect girl is gone.” Is this message what we really ought to be taking away from the film? If not, then what are we to make of this song?
At this point, it may help to remember that, when “Let It Go” was written, Elsa was actually intended to be the villain, so it makes sense for the song to celebrate the good girl gone bad because, well, she originally was the bad guy… girl. Oddly enough, it was this song that inspired the film’s writers to change the trajectory of the story, recasting Elsa as a tortured protagonist instead of the villain. So, instead of the definitive turn from virtue to vice, this song becomes, in the context of the rest of the film, a moment in Elsa’s journey toward conversion. The problem is, we aren’t given another iconic anthem that crystallizes (sorry—couldn’t resist) the rest of the story. After she ostensibly breaks free, Elsa learns that, despite her previous assertions, there is a right and wrong, and that her magic does have consequences (as magic always does), not only for herself but also for her subjects and especially for her sister Anna. In the end, Elsa embraces the rules she was so willing to ‘let go’ of, because she learns from Anna—the true heroine of the film and, one could even argue, a kind of Christ figure—that self-giving love is the only rule by which she ought to live.
Unfortunately, no one sings about this, and without another powerhouse song to serve as a counterweight to “Let it Go” and present the ultimate moral truths of the film, audiences are left with the one breakout musical number that tells only half of the story. This is irresponsible of the writers on one level, and even dangerous to the audience on another, considering that young children are the ones for whom Frozen was intended. These films leave a deep and lasting impression, and it’s critical that children come away from them with an impression that will form their moral imaginations for the good. To quote G.K. Chesterton, “[This] is the one eternal education; to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child” (What’s Wrong with the World, 254). Or, if you prefer a musical spin on this important lesson, we need only turn to Stephen Sondheim’s classic fairy tale adaptation Into the Woods: “Careful the things you say… children will listen.” These caveats that would have us guard what we say hold all the more true for what we sing, since children—even very young children—remember songs far more easily than they do speech. If you’re going to sing it, make sure you’re singing the truth, especially if you’re going to sing it to little ones.
After several viewings now, I’m less ambivalent about Frozen than I was before. It differs from other fairy tale adaptations in its complexities and temporary ambiguities, but ultimately, its message is one that audiences of all ages can and should strive to emulate in their own relationships. In the end, its only shortcoming happens to be the one thing that everyone remembers about it. All I can say is, when my sweet little niece leaves home for college someday, I hope she’s forgotten “No right, no wrong, no rules for me” and remembers instead the ultimate point of Frozen, that, to quote Olaf, “Love is about putting someone else’s needs before your own.” Think of the iconic song that could have been created to body forth such a powerful, formative message. Let’s hope they write it for the forthcoming Broadway adaptation. I’m thinking an epic reconciliation duet for Anna and Elsa. . . .
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life