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.


“The Little Oratory”: A New Handbook for the Home

The new release from Sophia Institute Press, The Little Oratory: A Beginner’s Guide to Praying in the Home is not at all what I had expected – but you will definitely want to keep reading to find out how you can enter for a chance to win a free copy.  Written by David Clayton and Leila Lawler, with illustrations by Mr. Clayton and Deirdre Folley, this volume is certainly a work of Christian spirituality, but one geared very much toward practicality.  If you are in need of a guide on how to bring devotional spaces and practices into your home and daily life, this is very much written for you.

Mr. Clayton and Mrs. Lawler use as the focal point for their book the idea of the “oratory” in the Christian home: a physical place set apart for prayer, and containing visual reminders of our relationship to God.  Beginning with the Early Church, they make a compelling historical and aesthetic argument for having a dedicated area in the house, no matter how large or small it may be, made over for religious use.  Over the course of the book, one begins to understand how doing this can help integrate one’s faith into one’s environment, so that spiritual life grows beyond attending Church on Sunday, into something for every day of the week.

As it happens, I have a cabinet in my own home which I always refer to as my oratory.  It stands about six and a half feet tall, with shelves making up the top 2/3 of the piece, and drawers on the bottom third. Spread out symmetrically across the shelves are devotional works of art, family photographs, and little items reminding me of important people and events in my life.  The largest of the shelves is just at the perfect height where I can kneel in prayer, and rest my hands on its ledge; the last shelf contains my Bibles, prayer books, and those spiritual books I return to most frequently.

One could also call this piece of furniture a shrine, although as the book points out we need to be careful about how we define that term in the home.  “The shrine we speak of,” the authors write, “is meant to be simply a place of beauty, directing our gaze through carefully chosen representative objects toward the transcendent.”  In my case, the cabinet certainly does that, since it’s the first thing one sees when entering the room.  In addition, because the wall sconce hanging above it shines light down directly onto an image of Christ Pantocrator, His gaze is the first I meet when I enter the room.

In this context, although we Catholics say so all the time, it deserves repeating that we do NOT worship such images.  “The Christian veneration of images,” as the authors of the book note, “is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols…the honor paid to sacred images is a “respectful veneration,” not the adoration due to God alone.”  Having a framed picture of a revered or beloved dead relative standing atop the piano in the living room, for example, does not mean you are worshiping them as a god, nor do such objects substitute for the person themselves.  Rather, they are simply visual reminders of them.

Once we can understand the importance of having this space an these cues set apart for prayer, the authors argue, we can then go on to try to incorporate those devotional practices of the Church which we may know about, but find difficult to integrate into day-to-day life.  The huge list of possible prayer practices, from the Liturgy of the Hours to the Rosary, litanies, novenas, examinations of conscience, and so on, may be too overwhelming to try to take on all at once.  Instead, the authors present the practical plan of starting with the space first, and then gradually building from there, as circumstances permit.

Key throughout the book is the authors’ repeated emphasis that the Christian home, and the relationships we enjoy there, must not be maintained separately from the spiritual life.  Rather, the home should be united to faith, in imitation of Christ’s own life. “God came to live among us as one of us,” they point out, “also being born in a family and growing up in a particular place, in order to make evident to us the importance, not only of these human relationships, but of the divine relationship which is the Trinity – three persons in a relationship in the one Godhead.”

Particularly for families, this book can serve as an instructional manual on how to get the kids to develop a deeper prayer life in the home, working with you rather than against you in order to make that happen.  The micro-site for the book even has a number of beautiful coloring pages that you can download and print out for the kids.  For singles, there is plenty for you here, as well – and not only the set of beautiful icon prints that one can can detach from the back of the book to help set up your own little oratory.  The authors take pains to point out how the single person, who is able to more deeply reflect on his own faith in his own space with fewer distractions, can be used to aid others, particularly families, in creating a more prayerful, spiritual home life.  Just as in the monastic houses, all are Brothers and Sisters, becoming someone’s spiritual aunt or uncle, brother or sister, can also be a way to help grow in faith, including by helping them to establish a prayerful space in their own home.

There really is something for everyone in this book, not only in terms of looking at spirituality, but also regarding how to actually go about employing that desire for spiritual growth in real terms.  If I’ve piqued your interest, you can enter for a chance to win a free copy of “The Little Oratory” from this blog, courtesy of Sophia Institute Press.  One entry per reader, please, and I’ll announce the winner this Friday, June 13th.  And of course if you can’t wait, then visit the Sophia Institute Press website, and order a copy directly from them.  I’ll think you find, as I have, a wealth of knowledge and ideas in these pages, which you can draw upon for many years to come.

The Little Oratory





Denver Diary: A Visit with Greg and Jennifer Willits

This weekend I was in Denver for the wedding of two good friends of mine, and I will have a few blog posts this week based on my experiences there.  Rather than post chronologically however, I wanted to make this first post about two people I met in Denver who, if you listen to the show or follow Catholic new media, you are very much aware of.  And for those of you who do not know them, allow this to serve as your formal introduction to some amazing people.

On Saturday I had the great opportunity to meet Catholic media pioneers Greg and Jennifer Willits, a couple whom I have listened to, admired, and learned from for a number of years now.  Their humor and banter makes you stick around to hear what they are going to say next, but beyond that mastery of good broadcasting there is a frankness in discussion and a drilling down to key issues which all of us face in a highly secularized world, which Greg and Jennifer speak to effectively, in a way all of us can relate to.  And in embracing the call to evangelization they have done so much, that even attempting to summarize their many projects and achievements to date would take a rather lengthy blog post in and of itself. So I will direct you to the About section of their website and you can see just some of the things they are working on.

Greg picked me up at my hotel in downtown Denver early on a very cold Saturday morning, and we drove out to gracious Rancho de Willits, where I got to meet Jennifer, several of their children, the very friendly family dog, and the more skittish family cats.  We recorded Episode No. 199 of  the Catholic Weekend show – and if you’re doing your math properly you will note that our 200th episode is coming up this Saturday – and then we recorded Greg and Jennifer’s show, The Catholics Next Door.  I then had to head back into Denver for the remaining wedding festivities, but it was great to be able to talk on the drive about not only Denver, which in many ways is so different a place from what I am used to on the East Coast, but also about media, the Church, and finding one’s vocation in the world.  It’s a conversation which needs to continue over pints at some point in the near future.

Just as the CNMC in Boston was a rather surreal experience – though obviously in a very good way – so was chatting with Greg and Jennifer on their show, at their house.  If you have listened to or watched them over the years, they’re exactly the fun, passionate people you think they are.  Yet as much as I enjoyed doing these shows with them, and getting to know them in person, there was a little moment that occurred when I first arrived which really struck me, and impressed me about the sort of people they are.

Two of the Willits boys were heading off to a weekend retreat for their confirmation preparation, and as in any family when the kids have to get going somewhere, there was much running about making sure bags were packed, permission slips were signed, and coats were put on.  Then just before it looked like all was ready to head out the door, everyone stopped.  The family prayed together, with Greg leading them, asking that Our Lord would bless his sons on their retreat, drawing them closer in love to Christ.

We know that the Patriarchs prayed over their children in this way of course, and I was reminded of some of those stories as I saw this, even though at present Greg has not gone with the full-on Jeremiah beard.  Yet apart from saying grace before meals, I wonder how many of us in our families or with our friends take the time to pause, gather together, and invoke the aid of the Almighty, when there is something important we are about to set out and do.  It struck me as a wonderful example not only of good parenting and family life, but also of the importance of stopping what you are doing and being quiet, even if only for a few moments, before plunging into a big project or some maelstrom of activity.

In any case, thank you again to Greg and Jennifer for a terrific time on Saturday: it was an honor and privilege for me to visit you and your family, and to be on your show.  To listen to The Willits on Catholic Weekend you can follow this link, and to listen to me on The Catholics Next Door, you can visit this page, and of course both episodes are available to download in iTunes.  And be sure to check back here tomorrow, when I will answer the question: just how dry IS the Mile High City?