Tuesday, June 12, 2018

I had read enough reviews in advance of seeing First Reformed that I was afraid I had ruined the movie for myself.

"Take and Read" calls out below a rack of pamphlets in the church vestibule, pamphlets unlikely to convert anybody.1 Better witnesses, four books on a nightstand: letters of Thomas Merton, Heretics, The Cloud of Unknowing, the American Standard Version of the Bible.2

In his conversation with Mary's husband, Michael, Rev. Toller seems to prevail, but it becomes gradually apparent that Michael's influence upon Toller is ultimately greater. Interiorly, Toller likens their back-and-forth to that of Jacob wrestling with the unnamed angel.3 Michael's agitation during the conversation may be explained as the typical uneasiness of a non-religious person4 in the presence of a clergyman. Or even fear his violent plans are found out. But Michael's death5 is a hit by the oil company, Balq Industries. Had Michael remained in the Canadian prison for his non-violent environmental protest, he would have been sufficiently neutralized to satisfy Balq. If not for his expectant wife. Michael turns the conversation to martyrdom,6 naming Dorothy Stang and others. The Rev. Toller tells him of his son who died in an unjust war. Thick irony: a suicidal father getting argued out of an abortion by a mourning father. Toller instructs Michael to hold hope and despair in balance with courage. How Toller dare speak to Michael about courage!

Toller is ineffective.7 He persuaded his son to enlist, killing him. His wife left him. Even his extra-marital affair failed. He can't pray. He talks of "the sickness that leads to death"8 metaphorically, but it is literally his situation. He pees blood and vomits uncontrollably. He is literally being poured out as a libation, 2 Timothy 4:6. He can't stand up to Balq9 or even Jeffers. Clues10 lie around him everywhere of what Christians used to be. He isn't blind to them: the Underground Railroad trap door in the old church, the bullet holes from the Skirmish of Snowbridge. Looking over the program booklet for an upcoming church anniversary, Toller marvels at the portraits of First Reformed's pastors, with his own last. He wonders if God gave them courage.

The worship at First Reformed: the Sunday service includes recitation of the Heidelberg Catechism,11 a Scripture reading and the Sacrament of Communion by intinction. With the pipe organ out of order, there's no music or singing. The church architecture isn't a style that I'm familiar with, seeing mostly Greek Revival Presbyterian and Reformed churches in the part of New Jersey where I live.

I believe when Toller tells off Esther, he is in fact speaking directly to the Reformed tradition. "You bring out the worse in me. I despise you." Esther represents that Calvinist tradition that writer and director Paul Schrader was raised in. Not surprisingly, Toller writes in his journal the following morning that he's never felt better, clear-headed. Amen.

Obviously, Jeffers represents the megachurch phenomenon. And perhaps Mary, with family in Buffalo, could stand for Catholicism, the only Christian tradition to still produce radical activists in our day. Funny how Toller drops everything when she's around. Mary casts quite a spell. She's there for him at the pearly gates in rapture.12
1 St. Augustine hears "Tolle Lege" and his eyes fall upon Romans 13:13-14.
2 "with Helps," though in the film, Rev. Toller makes greater use of the porcelain American Standard.
3 Who is probably the archangel Michael, "Who is like God?"
4 Recall that Michael refers to Abundant Life as being more like a corporation than a church. Michael has perused online Balq Industries's financial statements; he knows it's fact. Funding Abundant Life's church programs so congregants keep busy in-house and don't take interest in anything real world. How Jeffers dare speak to Toller about the real world!
5 Michael intended suicide, yes, but with the vest, not a shotgun.
6 For Christian martyrdom contrasted with suicide, see Chapter 6 of Chesterton's Orthodoxy: "Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die."
7 1 Corinthians 9:26 "So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air"
8 The inverse of what John 11:4 says.
9 Add to this, Ed Balq at their first meeting remarks rather callously that a man whom Rev. Toller was counseling took his own life. But we know what really happened, and this is an example of Balq's skill at neutralizing his adversaries.
10 Clues, aka witnesses, aka martyrs
11 "1 Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death? A. That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ."
12 Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, Number One Funeral Hymn Top 10 Hymns for a Funeral Ceremony

Thursday, February 08, 2018

A number of churches in the area sent buses to the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. last Friday.1 I traveled with a fellow parishioner whom I have come to know through various, local volunteering situations. Neither of us attended the march previously.

Early start for a long day: dressed before 5 o'clock and made the two highschoolers' lunches. Dropped the son who catches the out of district bus at his stop and arrived back home nearly in time to meet my ride to St. John's church. Jeff had a busy day in my absence, taking our son for an interview at a prospective high school, going ice skating afterwards and then a sporting event in the evening.

Not much happened on the drive down to D.C. After a brief rest stop at Maryland House, the deacon and his wife led a rosary. I've not met a deacon yet who can flawlessly count on a rosary, so it may be an ordination requirement that their wife can. They traded off the decades with her adding back the Aves he left off, to our collective relief. Around 11, we rolled into the Basilica's parking lot but there was no time to visit.


It would take a solid hour to hoof it across campus to the Red Line and walk more from Metro Center. Not to mention stopping for the Angelus which I've never before prayed on a public street. It was a showy display to satisfy the fastidious in the group.


As soon as we hit the Mall, my companion and I lost our traveling group. The program was in progress and Sister Madonna was being introduced. C-SPAN clip. She was very sweet. As we were beginning to speculate that we had arrived too late to hear the president speak, our attention was directed towards the jumbo screen where the vice president appeared live from the Rose Garden (C-SPAN video). He introduced the president. They are both good speakers. I could listen to his New York accent all day long.


The crowd was overwhelmingly Catholic. And young. The clergy, exclusively male.2 We stayed in place until Speaker Paul Ryan finished, then the crowd began moving down Madison Drive. We missed most speakers that followed Ryan, hearing only bits and pieces of Rep. Chris Smith and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler.

But the crowd did not move much and I began to doubt we'd reach the Supreme Court. We had a rendezvous with our group, the 5 o'clock Latin mass at St Mary's, so we bailed on the march to arrive just in time. En route, we encountered an instance of anti-Catholicism:


Also, a fellow rolled down his window long enough to complain that our presence interfered with his commute home.

The tiny church, St Mary Mother of God, was jam-packed. The line for the confessional rivaled the line for the head. We stood along the back wall until someone asked whether we were in line for confession. We stepped forward a bit to make use of the kneelers behind the last pew. So tired, kneeling felt more comfortable than standing!

The pews were raised some off the floor so just about everyone stumbled coming out of them. The incense completely overpowered the small space. The schola sang beautifully, absolutely beautifully. Like most Catholics my age, I know only the basic responses. This was a high mass but people ignored the difference.

Leading up to communion, the woman next to me whispered,
May I ask, do you know how many times in one day someone can receive holy communion? Is it twice?
Reflexively, I told her yes and thought to myself two things: (1) anyone asking that question knows the answer and (2) she wants me to know she's received communion once already today.

At communion, our priest, Fr. Carter of Holy Innocents, kept a lightning pace, so we crossed the aisle to his short line. Too quick! He ended up flipping the host intended for me to the floor!3 Walking from the rail, I muttered, "That wasn't my fault!" It was his speed coupled with my desire to utter "Amen" instead of just waiting there with my tongue out.

Almost immediately upon taking our place at the service, I spotted a Facebook friend sitting several rows up whom I have never met in person. After the service, I went forward and greeting him just very briefly because we had to catch our bus. It was neat.

On the bus ride back, we watched "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," a favorite with the older generation on board. I can just imagine the casting call for it! Though it may be based on a classic, old story and star Julie Newmar, I just wasn't into it. It ended literally when our bus pulled into the church parking lot.

Jeff sent me a picture of the fencing meet that I missed.


The entire 45th annual March for Life program is available here. It's worth watching.
1 January 19th, 2018
2 There must be anti-abortion female clerics but they were not visibly present.
3 He promptly picked it up and consumed it.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The autumn hiking series through the county parks left me in pretty good physical shape that I intend to maintain through the winter. The only winter program open to join happens on Sunday mornings from 8 to noon, every other Sunday, starting last Sunday. Several inches of powdery snow had fallen a few days before and the cold temperatures kept the snow intact. I checked the park's cancellation line repeatedly, before my morning swim, and after, but no update. Despite temperatures around 0° and below, the walk was on.

A small group, myself and one other participant, plus a hike guide and a volunteer, set out in snow shoes and poles for a couple of hours. I'm not experienced on snow shoes and fell three times, from stepping on my own shoe and finally from fatigue. However, being out there was a pleasant time and after a week I can't now remember how cold my feet were.

At bible study on Wednesday, a question about how creation will "be liberated" (from its futility, Romans 8:20-21), with a leading follow-up question of how the Christian discerns a God-honoring environmental outlook that does not overemphasize nature's importance or humans' ability to conserve. For sure, I saw the latter part of the question as indoctrination but to my shock, everyone was already ideologically on board! Or perhaps the unsure ones kept silent. And I concluded it's our own distance from nature, our lack of interaction with the outdoors, that makes any substantial regard for its conservation seem like idolatry. Of course, either position can be out of whack, but human nature assumes "the other side" is.

I mentioned to my spiritual director that I took in the linens from the emergency housing program at the local Catholic church to wash. She's very familiar with the program but never considered that aspect of its operation, the need for clean sheets and towels. I also mentioned the Sunday morning hikes that keep me from showing up for choir at least until Palm Sunday. On that score, she said that, depending on how I feel about it, I might consider attending a Catholic mass on Saturday evening to make up for Sunday morning:
You know, they have those, a service on Saturday evening, every week. When I was pastoring, I would attend those and, you know, the pastor was aware, I'm Protestant, and he was fine with it.
I thought this was an unusual recommendation.