The Crawleys, The Skywalkers, and Inherited Sin

On New Year’s Day I went to see Episode VII of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” again with a friend, having seen it for the first time on the evening of Christmas Day with my siblings – it deserved a repeat viewing. As has been observed by others, Episode VII has many similarities to Episode IV, or more formally, “Star Wars: A New Hope”. However as my friend pointed out, because so much of Star Wars is drawn from mythology, where gods, humans, and their offspring often repeat the mistakes of the past, even though they can choose to do right or wrong, it is hardly surprising that patterns repeat. That idea stuck with me through the weekend, and so I must tip my hat to his perceptiveness.

I had a similar thought in watching the season premiere of “Downton Abbey” on Sunday. Now in its final season, this sixth outing trotted out many of the same things we have seen before. Lady Mary is once again in danger for getting caught in a sexual dalliance; Lady Violet and Cousin Isobel are at each other’s throats; the downstairs staff make perpetually cute (Carson and Mrs. Hughes) or perpetually woeful (Bates and Anna) or perpetually irritating (Daisy). One could say that, like seven Star Wars films, there is not much more to say in six seasons of Downton Abbey. Yet in taking this attitude, one forgets that family inheritances in these tales are very important. For lightsabers and estates hold a greater symbolic importance here.

Given the irrepressible human need for novelty, it is understandable that some would criticize both of these popular franchises for being repetitive. Of course, even high art can be viewed as repetitive, as the over 100 examples of works of art depicting The Annunciation in the National Gallery here in Washington alone demonstrate. (One also wonders whether the structural similarities between many of Mozart’s Piano Concertos also thereby eliminate them from being worthy entertainments.)

To me however, the stories of the Crawleys and the Skywalkers are not repetitive, but examples of how the same situations can and do appear, time after time, thanks to human nature and Original Sin.

We are all familiar with the saying, “the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son”, meaning that the descendants of the unjust will continue to feel the ill effects of the bad choices made by their parents, grandparents, etc. We can see this at work in Star Wars, and we also see it in Downton Abbey. The Skywalkers marked their ascendance by the shedding of blood, the Crawleys by the accumulation and protection of wealth. Each succeeding generation of these families is, at least to some extent, restricted by the choices made by those of the preceding generations. And in many instances, those choices were poor ones, the same temptations appealing to members of the same family, one generation after another. One need only read Suetonius’ “The Twelve Caesars” for a real-life example.

If you have ever studied the Bible, you know that it is replete with examples of repeated offenses within families, and the effects such offenses have on the descendants of those who made them. In fact such repetition is so common to come across in the Books of Kings and Chronicles that it is almost as if the author was just dialing it in. One repeatedly reads of how a King of Israel started well, but “he did evil in the sight of The Lord,” such as in committing murder or worshiping idols. Eventually he is succeeded by a son or another relative, who usually ends up doing more or less the same thing.

Although the stories may seem repetitive, it is through their very repetitiveness that God makes his point. David, blessed and specifically chosen as he was by God, screwed up royally, as it were. So did his son Solomon, when he came to the throne, despite being blessed with the greatest of wisdom. By themselves they were incapable of avoiding sin. And yet God was able to make use of them anyway.

The history of mankind is one ongoing struggle, as a result of Original Sin. Our first parents chose to abandon their innocent state and enter into sin. As their descendants, we inherited not only the Free Will they had been given to make that decision, but also their attraction to sin in our own makeup, so that we keep facing the same choices and struggles that they did. To show us how power, greed, pride, and all the rest are offered to each generation in turn, and how each of us must choose, therefore, is not repetitive: it is a reality, one which all of us must learn for ourselves, often over and over.

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Everything Is Not Awesome: We Need Penance More Than Butterflies

As part of the Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis, this Tuesday the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican was illuminated with a slideshow projection entitled “Fiat Lux”. Inspired by Pope Francis’ recent encyclical “Laudatio Si”, and timed to coordinate with the UN Climate Change conference taking place in Paris, the light show featured enormous images of animals, nature, and so on, put together to draw attention to the environment. You can watch a lengthy video of the display by following this link.  

It is not easy to be a commentator and cultural critic when, as in my case, you are not a particularly good one, and you happen to be a practicing but bad Catholic, besides. There are many moments when, as a writer, you are torn between being nice, and being truthful. There are also many moments as a Catholic when you know that something is wrong, but you do not want to hurt someone else’s feelings because you want to be thought of as a nice chap.

We Catholics have been playing nice, rather than actually practicing our religion, for quite a long time now, of course. This is not Pope Francis’ fault: the majority of Western Catholics had already taken the position that it was better to be nice than to be truthful long before he was elected. In fact, in many instances they were encouraged to hold to such a view by their own priests and bishops, who told them not to worry so much about their sins, because they were fundamentally nice people – as if being nice was the moral equivalent of being conceived without original sin.

As a result, this high-level espousal of what we might call a “smile and you’re saved” mentality which seems to dominate the Church in the West, has filtered from the hierarchy all the way down to the individual parishioner. Sunday after Sunday (when they actually bother to show up), Catholics are fed a kind of chicken soup theology, more appropriate for First-Graders who have not yet made their First Communion, in which the only real sin one can commit is that of not being nice to oneself or others. In essence, it seems as though we are all expected to join in a chorus proclaiming how, “Everything Is Awesome”, including ourselves.

Except that everything is NOT awesome.

The harvest of planting generations of niceness instead of orthodoxy in the Church is all too readily apparent in both Europe and the United States, which have become like the fields choked by weeds of which Christ speaks in the Gospels (see, e.g. St. Matthew 13: 3-29, 36-43). One need only consider the widespread practices among Catholics of contraception, cohabitation, and abortion; low Mass attendance; liturgical abuses; sexual abuse and promiscuity among the clergy and religious; the closure of churches, schools, and monasteries; etc. Viewed purely from a cultural aspect, Catholicism is a mess, and it has become so, at least in part, by forgetting that man is not saved from damnation by being nice. It seems bizarre, when looking at the state of the Church in the Western world, that we continue to pursue niceness as being some sort of an addition to the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy.

I am most definitely not a theologian, nor do I pretend to be. Yet as an average, pew-sitting Catholic, a position which incidentally does not require me to hold an STL, I cannot for the life of me begin to understand when the idea of being nice came to supplant the actual duty of those in positions of knowledge and authority – priests, bishops, and yes, popes – to admonish sinners, instruct the ignorant, and counsel the doubtful. If you cannot recall the last time your parish priest or bishop preached on the nature and eternal effects of unrepentant mortal sin if one fails to seek out God’s Mercy, you are not alone. It is important, therefore, in this Year of Mercy, to understand what exactly mercy is, and what it is not.

Being nice is not synonymous with being merciful, any more than being merciful is synonymous with being compassionate. Compassion is the responsibility of all, Christian or otherwise, to aid those who are suffering. Mercy is something else entirely – and it is not about being nice to others. By definition, mercy implies the forgiveness of an underlying state of punishable sin, a forgiveness which is only possible where there is not only an understanding of what sin is, but a recognition of one’s being in a state of sin, coupled with the intent on the part of the sinner to turn away from and repudiate the sinful life they have been living. Conflating mercy with compassion, if you’ll pardon the expression, is not very nice, for the eternal consequences are far more dire.

Remember that Christ saved the soul of St. Dismas, a.k.a. “The Good Thief”, not because Jesus was nice, but because the man was a sinner who sought forgiveness. St. Dismas recognized, at the eleventh hour, that what he really needed was God’s eternal forgiveness, more than he needed man’s temporal approbation. Despite suffering in physical agony and humiliation in a public execution, he still had the faith to call out and ask Christ to forgive him and be merciful to him. And Christ gave him the promise which I hope against hope to hear when the time comes: “This day, you will be with Me in Paradise.”

Now don’t get me wrong from the title of this piece: I love butterflies. I used to chase them and study them when I was little, examining them closely before I would free them. They are wonderful creatures. The fact that pollution has grown so much worse that populations of creatures like butterflies are collapsing is a terrible thing. We can and should all agree that the abuse of God’s Creation is a sin, and Pope Francis is right to call attention to it, even if it was unfortunate that he chose to do so in such a tacky (and arguably sacrilegious) way.

Yet just imagine if the Year of Mercy had been kicked off at St. Peter’s, not with a light show to draw the attention and approbation of the international press, but rather with hundreds of priests hearing confessions, with the Holy Father giving sermons on the fatal nature of mortal sin, and conducting interviews explaining why it is important to be reconciled to God through the sacraments. Now that would have been really…nice.

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The Throwaway Bread

Since we’ve been having such nice weather recently, the other day I went to a local cafe for lunch, so that I could sit outside and enjoy the sunshine.  I ordered a large bowl of potato and leek soup, which came with a very lovely bread roll.  This was not the sort of hard, inedible thing you get at a wedding reception or charity dinner, but rather a beautifully shaped, crusty, oblong bread, something like a miniature baguette.

I had just sat down to eat my soup outside at one of the cafe tables, when a woman came up to me off the street.  “Can you buy me something to eat?”, she asked.  Not having any money to hand, I offered, “Well, I could give you my bread,” since I had not even touched the beautiful little loaf yet.  The woman then picked up the bread, looked at me with something which I can best describe as disdain, turned around and threw the bread in the street.

Chances are, as you read the forgoing, your first reaction was to criticize this woman for a lack of gratitude.  Or perhaps your reaction was that I should have ignored her altogether.  Or perhaps you think it would have been better not to offer her anything at all, if I didn’t have any money I could give her so that she could go decide for herself what she wanted to eat.  Or you might have reached the conclusion that this poor woman was simply not right in the head, for if she was mentally “all there” and hungry, she would not have thrown away perfectly good food.

All of these things are possible ways to look at this incident.  However I don’t want the reader to spend too much time thinking about the motivations of this particular woman or of this particular scrivener.  Instead, I’d like you to think about a more important lesson that we might be able to draw from this experience.

When we think about it a little more deeply, isn’t what took place a rather striking example of what sin is like?  Throughout our lives, God always offers us what we need.  Too often, if what He offers us doesn’t conform to what we want, what do we do with it?  We simply throw His gift away, and move on thinking we will get something better from some other source.

Now before you or I or anyone else starts thinking, “I would never do something like that,” I would suggest that it is time for all of us to swallow a big dose of humility.  Go read about King David or St. Peter, and ask yourself: do I really think so highly of myself, that I am better than they?  If the answer is, “Yes,” then frankly you have some rather significant problems to work out in your little gray cells. For I assure you, far better men than you or I have simply thrown away God’s gifts many times, and indeed you and I are doing so far more often than we might care to think.  While this incident with the throwaway bread was an isolated one, I hope that what we can take away from it may be beneficial to many of us.

As a matter of fact, this story has a terrific application for the immediate future.  Over the next few weeks, we are going to spend a great deal of time asking and answering the question, “What do you want?”, as we go about buying things for one other.  Yet how many of the things we say we want, are also things that we actually need? This something all of us should be thinking about, not just during the materialist nightmare known as the “Holiday Season”, with all of its meaningless excess, but more importantly as we consider the meaning of the spiritual nature of this time of year, which is of far greater importance than anything we may give or receive.

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“Basket of Bread” by Salvador Dalí (1926)
Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida