“Put Jesus First” – #Advent2016 Preparation

star-437519_1280To be honest, I have been so busy preparing for an upcoming evangelization trip that the reality that Thanksgiving is next week and the first Sunday of Advent is the following Sunday has been entirely off my radar! But actually, I am getting ready for a very special Advent, as I prepare for the Advent retreats and missions that I will be leading and participating in during the second and third weeks of Advent in Illinois at several parishes. These two weeks will be a spiritually nourishing change from my ordinary routine, and gives a special evangelization focus to my Advent!

(If you are in Illinois, near Chicago or in the Peoria diocese, you can check out where I’ll be when here.  I’d love to meet you!)

Our sisters at Pauline Books & Media are offering some awesome free resources to help us to make Advent 2016 a true spiritual season. Our theme this year is Put Jesus First! You can find these helpful tools on the web for you and your family!

An entire issue of our Discover Hope newsletter with 5 tips to help your family prepare for Christmas.

An Advent Word of the Day daily inspirational email prepared by our very own Sr. Anne Flanagan, so that we can fully enter into the Advent spirit.

A “Put Jesus First” Advent Planning Guide (sign up here).

A free, inspirational monthly calendar for children that begins with the first Sunday of Advent!

 

Other free Advent resources:

XT-3’s 2016 Advent Calendar (available online and as an app)

The University of Creighton’s Online Ministries Praying Advent offers wonderful resources for adults–from audio Advent Retreats, to praying with your imagination, to video reflections… This is a site that I visit every so often to download the latest resources!

CatholicIcing.com has some easy, “no preparation required” ideas for family activities for Advent!

IgnatianSpirituality.com has more resources that help us to deepen our spiritual growth in Advent, especially linking the arts to Advent (one of my favorite Advent resources).

Here’s the link to some wonderful ideas for spiritually-nourishing Christmas gifts that our sisters offer for teens and children!

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Anime Films for the Family: Studio Ghibli

Some years ago, a friend introduced me to the works of Studio Ghibli, an anime studio started by two filmmakers that I wish I had known about years ago.  I don’t really consider myself an anime fan—but I have found most of their films delightfully entertaining. Although the future of the studio is not clear (Hiyao Miyazaki, probably the more famous of the partners, retired), they have released co-productions.

Studio Ghibli’s films are, for the most part, anime for both children and adults that reflect Japanese culture and worldview, but are also about universal themes.  Although the films are not Christian (Shintoism and Buddhism are practiced by the great majority, with Christians about 1.5% of the population, and other religions only 7.1%), there are strong human values in every film. In our world today, it is important to introduce children to the worldview of other cultures, and watching Studio Ghibli films is a beautiful and powerful way to catch a glimpse of Japanese culture.

Of the 10 Studio Ghibli films that I have seen, I have found all of them beautifully drawn, compelling characters, and more realistic about life than the typical animated or anime film. The magic of childhood is very much present in the films, presenting the world in a way that is respectful and gentle, but that doesn’t deny the reality of evil and suffering. Studio Ghibli films do not always have a happy, Disney ending. The stories vary in quality, but many are of high quality, with often unexpected plot twists.

Check out the Windows to the Soul segment on Studio Ghibli on this week’s Salt+Light Radio Hour!

Each film is unique, but here are some common characteristics of many of the films that I have watched:

  • Imaginative, whimsical, beautiful
  • The reality of the spiritual realm is taken for granted, although from a Shinto perspective, not a Christian one. Whether spirits or magic, the worldview in the Studio Ghibli films is the opposite of materialistic, and at least one film clearly shows the poverty of a materialistic worldview. I find it refreshing to watch films that are open to the mystical and spiritual realm. The differing perspective can also provide families and classes the opportunity to discuss our faith in the afterlife as Catholics.
  • Strong human values/themes:
    • respect for elders
    • valuing the family
    • nature
    • silence
    • friendship and loyalty
    • respect for tradition
    • anti-war or pacifist, showing the horrors of war
  • Many of the films have a strong female protagonist
  • Rather than a “happily ever after,” often the films have a bittersweet ending with a sense of acceptance of reality
  • Appropriate for children—although of varying ages ranging from 5+ to more appropriate to preteens or teenagers—but also really enjoyable for adults. Not in a Pixar, comic way, but in the way that it deals with serious themes and the struggles of life, and the sheer beauty of the world and the animation. Some of the films are a bit slower and so would be harder for younger children to watch, but even in the slower films, there is a lot to take in.

In general, I find it helpful to watch the English dubbed versions, rather than the subtitled.

Below, you’ll find a list of some of the more accessible of Studio Ghibli’s films. I’ll share my thoughts on each film as I see it. In the meantime, for finding the appropriate age level for various films, I’d recommend visiting CommonSenseMedia.org on their Studio Ghibli List.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature, adapted from his own manga, about a brave princess trying to bring peace to her world. (Technically, not a Studio Ghibli film; its success prompted the creation of Studio Ghibli.)

Castle in the Sky (1986; also known as Laputa) Directed by Hayao Miyazaki with similar themes to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind: children vs. technology’s evils.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988) Directed by the other founding partner of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful film about the consequences of war on the innocent. The story of two children, brother Seita and his little sister Setsuko, struggle to survive the devastating effects of the fire-bombings of the Allied Forces in Tokyo during World War II. It has been called one of the most powerful anti-war films ever.

I saw Grave of the Fireflies too long ago to write a detailed commentary, but I can attest to the power and tragedy of this film. It is not an easy film to watch–and I do not recommend it for children, but for teens who are old enough to be able to handle the intense tragedy and emotion. Although this trailer is subtitled, I watched the dubbed version, which is available on DVD.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988) Directed by Hiyao Miyazaki, this is an extremely gentle film about two little girls who befriend supernatural spirits at their new home. (“Spirits” understood in a fantastical sense from a Shinto perspective.)

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) — Directed by Miyazaki, this delightful film for younger children is the coming-of-age story of Kiki, a young witch who leaves home for the traditional year of starting life on her own. Although Kiki is a witch, there is no sense of evil or seeking power; her only power is flying, which she hasn’t quite mastered at the beginning of the film. This gentle film about a young girl leaving home and gradually building a new life for one’s self amid difficulties doesn’t have many deeper themes, but it is worthwhile entertainment with human values.

Porco Rosso (1992)  — Set in Italy in the 1930s, this is the story of a veteran World War I pilot who is cursed to look like a pig. I am curious to see this film, because it’s received so many positive reviews.

Princess Mononoke (1997) — Directed by Miyao Hiyazaki, this film is recommended for older children ages 12+ by Common Sense Media because of its violence. Princess Mononoke is the story of the conflict between nature and civilization and is darker and more intense than many Studio Ghibli films. I really enjoyed this film when I saw it years ago, and I plan to see it again soon. 

Spirited Away (2001) — Written and directed by Miyao Hiyazaki, Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003. It is the story of Chihiro, a young girl who is upset with her parents for moving. As they travel to their new home, they visit a village that is occupied by a sorcerer and spirits, where Chihiro’s parents are transformed into animals and taken hostage. Chihiro escapes being changed but loses her name, and must find a way to redeem herself and her parents. An amazing film, Spirited Away has some scary scenes but a courageous, kind-hearted, and loyal protagonist.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2005) – Directed by Hiyao Miyazaki, this is my favorite Studio Ghibli film for sheer entertainment. It’s a delightful, whimsical fantasy loosely based on Diana Wynn Jones’ book of the same name. There are many elements of a fairy tale: enchantments that disguise, a wizard and a witch, a war, king, a castle that lumbers along, a love story, and the protagonist, young Sophie Hatter, whose strength, kindness and love change the lives of those around her, despite her troublesome enchantment and initial lack of self-confidence.

Secret World of Arrietty (2011) — Directed by a new director at Studio Ghibli, Hiromasa Yonebayashi and based on the classic children’s fantasy, The Borrowers, by Mary Norton, adapted for the screen by Hiyao Miyazaki. 

The Borrowers was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. “Borrowers” are little people—about five inches tall—and unseen people who share your house with you, living under the floor and in the walls. They survive by “borrowing” things that you never miss, or that you know you put somewhere but can never find. Curious Arrietty is the only child of the Clock family and is curious about the world beyond her family’s hidden spaces. One day she is seen by the Boy who is visiting the house. Discovered, she is delighted to make a new friend and to see the world of the “human beans.” But the lives of the Clock family are put at risk when the owner of the house spies on the Boy and discovers them.

I was delighted that Studio Ghibli decided to take on The Borrowers, and the film is beautifully animated. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed in how this less complex story moved a bit too slowly for my taste. A less-compelling tale, The Secret World of Arrietty is still a delightful film for children.

The Wind Rises (2013) — The last film written and directed by Hiyao Miyazaki before he retired, is a more complex story of a young man whose dream is to design planes. Inspired by the life of famous warplane designer Jiro Horikoshi, the film is only partly factual. But it feels like an animated bio-pic, taking us through decades of Japanese history—including the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, the Great Depression, and the ambivalent sentiment of Japanese citizens during World War II. There is much to admire in Jiro’s character, and the story focuses quite a bit on his love for Nahoko, a young woman that he rescues as a very young man.

What is difficult about the film is that Jiro actually designed war planes for the Japanese during World War II, including the infamous Zero, which could out-maneuver every other airplane when it first flew in 1940. Over 10,000 of these planes were built and flown, and the Zero caused great destruction during World War II. Jiro designed the planes knowing they would be used for war, and he talks about not wanting the war to design war planes, but he goes ahead and does it anyway, with the  motivation that he just wants to design planes, even though he knows his planes would deal out so much death. This is not fully explored, but left as a contradiction and glaring moral question for Jiro’s character, which is heroic and likable in so many ways.

The film is well-done, beautifully animated as always, with interesting characters. Overall, I found the film a bit slow for my taste, especially when I discovered that some important elements of the story were not factual. However, The Wind Rises is a masterpiece well-worth viewing, as well as a fascinating example of an animated bio-pic that skillfully brings us through decades of Japanese history. I would recommend it for older children simply because it’s complexity and depth.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) — Directed by Isao Takahata. A Japanese folktale about a tiny princess whom an elderly bamboo discovers magically growing in a bamboo plant. He takes her and raises her with his wife in the idyllic country side, where Lil Bamboo grows too rapidly for an ordinary girl.

Despite their happy time in the country, her father buys a rich home in the city for his daughter, and has her trained in the ways of wealthy society. The princess unwillingly obeys her father, torn by her love for her previous life in the forest with her friends, and her desire to obey and make her father happy. But the inhuman process of choosing a husband merely for appearance and status is greatly distressing to the princess and also somewhat to us as viewers.

This is an amazing and visually exquisite  film. In terms of the animation alone, this is my favorite Studio Ghibli film. This film has all the hallmarks of a great Studio Ghibli film: a beautifully told story, complex characters, incredibly symbolism in the visuals, and deep themes, including:

  • the consequences of our choices
  • the nurturing and love important for a child in the family
  • a critique of living by appearances and seeking social status
  • the value of a simple life of harmony and love
  • the incredible beauty and gift of nature

Despite the serious themes, the story can be followed by children in middle grades. A delightful film for the whole family.

When Marnie Was There  (2014)— Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s second Studio Ghibli film, When Marnie Was There is the story of Anna, a foster child who is sent for her health to the seaside to stay with her foster mother’s sister and husband. Struggling with feeling like an unwanted outsider, both lonely and sad, Anna explores the neighborhood and is fascinated by a dilapidated mansion that is accessible by land only in low tide. Anna eventually meets Marnie, a blonde-haired girl from the mansion, and they become friends. 

But the nature of their friendship is elusive, as Marnie sometimes disappears and Anna will  find herself suddenly alone. What (and who) is real becomes a growing tension in the film, but the gift of their friendship and the surprises it contains, nurtures and heals both girls. The ending is deeply moving, linking the present with the past.

Some reviewers found this film slow-moving, but for me and any other adult or older child (ages 10+) who has questioned his or her identity, this film is profoundly engrossing, poignant, and rewarding.

2016 Fall Films with Themes of Faith & Care for Creation

NOTE: I’m posting this early (instead of this coming Monday) because I forgot to post it earlier, and showings of these films may not last. 

A few movies with themes of faith have come to theaters last month and are releasing in theaters this month. Although I haven’t had the opportunity to screen any of them in advance, I thought I’d at least help get the word out about them here–along with any reviews that I’ve seen that are worthwhile.

PRICELESS

Priceless is a film about human trafficking, made by Christian filmmakers. It opened in theaters October 14th, and has had limited showings. I wish I’d been able to go, but as far as I know, the closest showing is over an hour away. Here is a review that I appreciated from Christopher Close-up on Patheos.

 

NEW LIFE

New Life looks like a promising relationship film that opened on Oct. 28th. Unfortunately, it’s  showing in even fewer  places, but if you live near these theaters listed below, you might want to check it out here on the movie’s website. A thoughtful review–though not from a Christian perspective, but a parenting perspective–is offered here on Common Sense Media.

 

newlifescreenings

 

HACKSAW RIDGE

Some people are saying that Hacksaw Ridge is Mel Gibson’s “comeback” movie. I did not get to go to an early screening, so I’ll be looking for it after November 4, when it releases in theaters. Hacksaw Ridge is the story of Desmond Doss, an unlikely hero of WWII because he was a pacifist due to his Christian faith. Newspapers–including Catholic papers–will be filled with reviews of the film this week.

 

I’M NOT ASHAMED

Because of its limited release on October 21, you may not have even heard of overtly Christian film, I’m Not Ashamed, about Rachel Joy Scott, the first student murdered at the Columbine High School shooting.  Here is one thoughtful review. You can find a list of theaters showing the film here.

 

And lately, a number of programs have come to my attention that develop themes of Pope Francis’ Encyclical on God’s creation, Laudato Si.

CREATION 

Salt + Light TV developed Creation, a six-part series on the themes of Laudato Si. Salt + Light provides additional resources and a downloadable study guide for every episode. I still haven’t seen them all, but I highly recommend them.

 

BEFORE THE FLOOD

National Geographic channel broadcast Before the Flood on October 21, in which Leonardo DiCaprio travels the world speaking to scientists and world leaders about the dramatic effects of climate change. Before the Flood is also streaming online this week in multiple platforms–free on National Geographic and Youtube. Sr. Rose Pacatte reviews the documentary by Fisher Stevens here on her blog.

Sr. Rose Pacatte also reviews the first episode of season 2 of  Years of Living Dangerously, a National Geographic series on the environment.

CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING

Catholic Relief Services has almost finished creating a seven-part series in which each brief part (3-5 minutes) introduces one of the seven principles of Catholic Social Teaching.  They have completed five episodes so far (including episode 2 on Care for God’s Creation), and I’ve posted episode 1 above.

Recharging

What do you do when you feel like you have nothing left to give?

stranded-918933_1280That’s how I’ve felt through the week after the Clay Pots Retreat. It had been an amazing six weeks where I’ve given classes, retreat conferences, and assisted with our live webathon novena, but by the middle of the week, I couldn’t even think any more. I knew my introverted tank was past empty and I was running on fumes. It’s not comfortable when I feel like I have nothing left, that I’m “poured out,” and emotionally exhausted. In my prayer, even reading the Bible feels like it’s too hard. Fear that I will never be refilled takes over because I don’t even have the energy to deal with my worries.

And perhaps that’s the hardest part of all. When I’m that exhausted, I don’t just stop paying attention interiorly, but I feel stranded in the middle of nowhere, alone and abandoned; maybe even wrecked. Pretty soon, I’m overwhelmed by negativity and I simply want to cry because the emptiness haunts me.

That’s the short version of how I felt by Friday.

But I’d been in this place before, and I had the grace to see it coming earlier in the week. I seized an opportunity to get away for about a day and a half, and I took myself completely offline. In my prayer—when I just wanted to weep for sheer emptiness—I remembered how Jesus sanctified exhaustion. His solution for exhaustion was seeking out his Father…and so I spent several hours in quiet prayer. Most of the prayer time I simply accepted my emptiness, prayed for the people I’ve been interacting with for the past six weeks, and told Jesus I was open to whatever he wanted. 

That simple acceptance of my feelings and my discomfort, in Jesus’ presence—as difficult as it was—changed everything. Suddenly I was no longer stranded alone. Jesus was with me. Simply giving Jesus my poor, empty self and knowing that that was enough for him, made it become enough for me.

It was a very gentle weekend: I prayed quietly a lot, journaled a good bit, spent time outside (beautiful New England fall weather), took some long walks, watched a sci-fi film with a friend, and slept. And by Monday morning, I felt so blessed by the gifts of my ordinary life. But I continue to be aware that, for the next week or two, I need to continue being gentle, undemanding with myself, and creating extra space for quiet and listening. This will allow the “spiritual recharging” that began weekend to continue.

What do you do when you are spiritually and/or emotionally exhausted? I would love to hear your tips and strategies for “refueling” your spiritual life and your creativity!

Christ as Our Way of Communicating

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This week, we Paulines are praying the Novena to Jesus Divine Master. (The Pauline Feastday this year is Sunday, October 30th.) It is a beautiful, Scripturally-based novena in which we contemplate Jesus as Master, Teacher and Guide. Jesus is our way in everything, including how we communicate. Blessed James Alberione shared a beautiful reflection on how we are called to learn to communicate as Jesus did:

How did Christ communicate?

[Jesus] spoke in a simple and clear way even when he was teaching lofty doctrine. He adapted his teaching to the needs of every audience. The Gospel notes that he knew 
what was in every person (cf. Jn 2:25). He adapted himself to fishermen and shepherds, to those from Galilee and those from Judea, to the Pharisees, to his disciples, 
and to his opponents. How different is his conversation with the Samaritan woman from that with Nicodemus, who came by night! How different his teaching to the crowds from that given to the close circle of apostles! Yet it was always a question of the message of salvation.

He wanted his disciples to work in the same way.

The apostle [communicator], in fact, is not some great thinker who proposes his or her own conclusions, or has to defend his or her own teachings….. 
The apostle is a witness of what he or she has seen and heard from the Divine Master and from the Church in which [Christ] continues to live, teach, and guide.

What an immense privilege: to follow the Divine Master and cooperate with Jesus Christ in proclaiming his message of light, grace, and salvation.
-Blessed James Alberione

 

Quiet Success

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Our very first weekend Clay Pots Retreat for writers, artists, and media professionals was a “quiet” success! (During the 30-hour retreat–with an additional optional Friday evening–we had 19 hours of silence.) According to the retreatants, the combination of conferences, quiet prayer time, spiritual direction, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the celebration of the Eucharist, all made for an “awesome experience.” According to another retreatant, “The retreat was a great space for deepening relationship with God, understanding our role as evangelizers in media, and discovering and overcoming spiritual blockages/obstacles.”

For me, this retreat was an experience of communion, with the sisters on the retreat team and the retreatants. Working with the retreat team was a really beautiful experience of putting all our energies together for the sake of the spread of the Gospel and feeling together the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I also felt really  “at one” with the retreatants. We share so many of the same struggles: keeping up with the newest media and using them effectively with young people. We also share similar desires for deepening, for renewal in Christ, for responding to the call of Christ to evangelize; and we share similar challenges in overextending ourselves, fragmentation, facing “burnout,” and the need to discern God’s invitations to us in a daily basis.

My focus for the weekend was communication spirituality, with my presentation helping us to focus on Christ, the Perfect Communicator. 

Sr. Michael and I tried to tweet a few of the conferences. Here are a couple of my favorites:

We hope to have another retreat for media artists, writers, catechists, and people in ministry. Let me know if you’d like to be informed about upcoming retreats!

Communicating Hope: Theme & Invitation

The Vatican Secretariat for Communications has published the theme/motto for World Communications Day in 2017:

“Fear not, for I am with you” (Is 43.5). Communicating hope and trust in our time.

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I look forward in a particular way to the Pope’s message with this theme; it is usually released on January 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, who is the patron of writers, journalists, and the Catholic press.

The Vatican Secretariat for Communications issued this following statement on the theme

Numbness of conscience or letting desperation get the better of us are two possible “diseases” that our current communication system can cause.

It is possible that our conscience is cauterised, as Pope Francis comments in Laudato si’, as a result of the fact that often professionals, opinion leaders and means of communication work in urban areas distant from places of poverty and need, and their physical distance often leads them to ignore the complexity of the dramas faced by men and women.

Desperation is possible, instead, when communication is emphasised and transformed into spectacle, at times becoming a genuine strategy for constructing present dangers and looming fears.

But in the midst of this tumult a whisper is heard: “Fear not, for I am with you”. In His Son, God expresses his solidarity with every human situation and revealed that we are not alone, because we have a Father Who does not forget His children. Those who live united with Christ discover that even darkness and death become, for those who so wish, a place for communion with Light and Life. In every event, they try to discover what is happening between God and humanity, to recognise how He too, through the dramatic scenario of this world, is writing the history of salvation. We Christians have “good news” to tell, because we contemplate trustfully the prospect of the Kingdom. The Theme of the next World Day of Social Communications is an invitation to tell the history of the world and the histories of men and women in accordance with the logic of the “good news” that reminds us that God never ceases to be a Father in any situation or with regard to any man. Let us learn to communicate trust and hope for history.

* * *

Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation) [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation) [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

In a recent meeting with journalists on September 22, 2016, Pope Francis emphasized the importance and responsibility that journalists have in our society today. In particular, he briefly commented on:

  • loving the truth
    “To love the truth does not only mean to affirm it but to live it…”
  • living with professionalism 
    “[Journalism’s] vocation is, therefore – through attention, care in seeking the truth – to have man’s social dimension grow, to foster the building of  true citizenship.”
  • respecting human dignity
    “Behind the simple reporting of an event there are also sentiments, emotions, and, in short, the life of individuals.” 

The original text of his speech is available only in Italian and Portuguese on the Vatican’s website, but fortunately, Zenit provides a full English translation here. It’s short, but well worth the read!