A Gem for Family Movie Night This Summer

BookofLifecoverAs we head into summer, a fun thing to do while the kids are out of school is to have a weekly “family movie night” where we can catch up on some of the better films of the past year. One little-known gem that deserves its own family movie night is the brightly animated The Book of Life (2014), directed by Jorge R. Gutiérrez. Released briefly last fall, this film’s colorful and unusual animation is uniquely reflective of Mexican culture and a joy to watch.

You can listen to my five-minute review on the Salt + Light Radio Hour here.

A Journey Through Life & the Afterlife

The Book of Life is based on a Mexican tradition that is based more on superstition though it is somewhat Christian in appearance. “The Day of the Dead” has roots in the Catholic feast of All Souls on November 2nd, yet has been celebrated (as is shown in the film) in a way that is superstitious. In the film, one’s happiness in the afterlife is controlled by mythical beings and by the memories of those who live on earth—certainly not a Christian view of life after death. Despite this fantastical twist on the afterlife, The Book of Life is a story that deeply reflects a Christian worldview in the plot and choices of the characters.

The Book of Life is the story of Manolo, who, with his best friend Joaquin, is in love with their childhood friend Maria. Manolo’s father wants him to follow family tradition and become a bullfighter, but Manolo wants to become a musician. The majority of the story takes place after the three childhood friends have grown up, as both warrior Joaquin and bull-fighter/musician Manolo try to win the hand of the beautiful Maria. Manolo’s journey takes him through several worlds: from his Mexican hometown to the Land of the Remembered, and finally to the Land of the Forgotten–each setting with its own enchanting visual animation.

Both artistically and narratively, this enchanting film completely engages its audience through wonderful storytelling, imaginative and creative plot twists, complex and sympathetic characters (wonderfully voiced), vivid animation that gives us a taste of Mexican culture, and even a cameo vocal performance by Plácido Domingo! The Book of Life is a particularly diverting family film because the story is complex enough to entertain adults, but simple enough for most children—except the very young—to follow.

(Note that the film is rated PG for its animated violence, including several fights, the bull fights, a criminal that threatens the town and tries to overtake it, and some scary scenes in the Land of the Forgotten that could be difficult for young children. A couple song lyrics and a few jokes that aren’t appropriate for children will hopefully go over their heads.)

Christian-Themed

As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I enjoyed The Book of Life so much is because it powerfully raises Christian themes and values, making this film a many-layered delight as well as a great discussion-starter. As you watch the film, you may want to watch for these themes, and choose one or two to discuss afterwards:

  • The afterlife is assumed: death is a passageway, not an end
  • Courage
  • The importance and support of family—even a family that is deeply flawed
  • Heroism defined as selflessness
  • The importance of friendship
  • Women have smaller supporting roles, but are strong and three-dimensional
  • Forgiveness opens the door to love

The Book of Life is a refreshingly entertaining and wholesome story with deeply Christian themes that can be appreciated by the whole family.

Discover the Treasure of Pauline Spirituality in NYC This Week!

Just a reminder for any New Yorkers that I’ll be visiting this week for two special events:

1. Manhattan’s very own #Soul of Christ talk and book-signing at our Pauline Book & Media Center at 64 West 38th St. on Thursday evening (June 4) at 6:00 PM.

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2. Daughters of Saint Paul Centenary Day of Recollection and Centenary Mass on Saturday, June 6th, from 10 AM to 6:30 PM, at Holy Family Church, where I will be giving one of two talks and will lead the Eucharistic Hour of Adoration:

Flyer for Holy Family event

Trinity as the Foundation of Our Communication

Andrej Rublëv's icon of the Trinity

Andrej Rublëv’s icon of the Trinity

The Feast of the Most Holy Trinity has gradually become one of my favorites of the entire liturgical year. (I think the process was so gradual because it’s really hard to give a good homily on this unfathomable mystery.)  One of the reasons I consider it a personal feastday is how the Pauline spirituality of communication is founded on our understanding of the Trinity:

In the Christian faith, the unity and brotherhood of man are the chief aims of all communication and these find their source and model in the central mystery of the eternal communion between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who live a single divine life (Communio et progressio, #8).

Our Founder, Blessed James Alberione, wrote a prayer to the Most Holy Trinity that concludes by asking that our entire lives may be a “Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.” The framework of Blessed James Alberione’s entire spirituality is the Trinity, to whom he connects not just salvation history, but our own personal salvation history: the stages of our spiritual lives.

After taking a seminar with Don Giuseppe Mazza on this topic vital to communication spirituality, I’ve always wanted to deepen it. So this summer I decided to put aside my favorite Theology of St. Paul by James Dunn (which I am gradually working my way through), and I picked up The Trinity by St. Augustine. I hope to follow it up with other theological works on the Trinity, such as various works of Rahner and Catherine Mowry LaCugna’s God with Us: The Trinity and Christian Life.

Yesterday’s beautiful readings emphasized that God–who is eternal Communion between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–seeks a profound relationship with us. In the first reading from Deuteronomy chapter 4, Moses points out to the chosen people that God “wants” them for his own. Psalm 33 makes this desire of God explicit, and the second reading from Romans 8, Saint Paul explains how closely we are called to be in relationship with the Most Holy Trinity. Finally, in the Gospel reading (Matthew 28) Jesus asks us to help everyone to enter into this intimate relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, promising a special closeness to us as we witness to him: “I am with you always.” Yesterday, I simply prayed in wonder that the Almighty God so deeply desires a genuine relationship with me and with everyone on the face of the earth.

Some beautiful reflections on the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity:

Fr. Robert Barron’s Homily for Trinity Sunday (Podcast and Youtube) and Fr. Robert Barron’s Top 10 Resources on the Trinity

Trinity Sunday: Is It Relevant? at CatholicMom.com, by Marcellino D’Ambrosio, Ph.D.

 

We can make an act of faith in God’s eternal communion of love and his desire to draw us into that embrace of love every time we make that most simple, most familiar, but most meaningful prayer, the Sign of the Cross.

Prayer Book for Evangelizers of the New Evangelization

CovLiveChristGiveChristThis is a wonderful day because I can finally share with you something that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time: a prayer resource specifically for those who evangelize and/or work in the media or the arts. Drawing abundantly from the prayerbook of the Pauline Family–which is a private edition, intended only for members of the Pauline Family–Live Christ! Give Christ! Prayers for the New Evangelization is an inspiring prayer book with wonderful prayers by Blessed James Alberione and others from our Pauline tradition, as well as from contemporary Paulines. The title captures our spirituality (inasmuch as any 4 words can capture a spirituality)–that our communicating Christ flows from our dynamic relationship with him. It’s a really moving collection of prayers that can inspire a deeper living in, through, for and with Christ, as well as a spirit of evangelization that encourages us to testify to Christ not just with our words and media work, but with our whole lives.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know some of the characteristics of our Pauline prayer and life:

  • Trinitarian (the Most Holy Trinity gives us the basis for our communication spirituality)
  • Eucharistic
  • Scriptural
  • evangelizing
  • ongoing conversion
  • Jesus Way, Truth, and Life
  • Marian (Mary, Queen of Apostles, consecration to Mary, etc.)
  • St. Paul as mystic and apostle
  • reading the signs of the times
  • holistic (bring the whole person to the whole Christ)
  • searching for the seeds of the Gospel in popular culture
  • continual search for how to express the compelling beauty of the Gospel for people today
  • praying for evangelizers, media professionals and artists
  • praying for all those who use the media
  • reparation for the abuse or misuse of the media

This prayer book includes prayers that focus on all of these aspects! I cannot wait to begin praying with it myself.

Although I was blessed to be a small part of this project–the editor included a number of prayers that I wrote and asked for my input on this manuscript when it was in development, I’m sharing my enthusiasm because of the wonderful prayers that are new to me, that all media professionals, artists, and Catholics involved in evangelization in any way will find helpful for their prayer and work. As soon as I received my copy, it traveled to our chapel with me, where I can personally pray with it. I was going to share a couple of favorite prayers with you, but as I flipped through the pages, I could not choose…they are each so beautiful.

For more information, the tip sheet is included below.

Tip Sheet- Live Christ! Give Christ!

A Nun’s Take on The Avengers: Age of Ultron–a Big Film

AvengersPosterYou can listen to my 8 minute radio segment on Avengers: Age of Ultron on the Salt + Light Radio Hour here. 

Before I Begin: A Note About Comic Books Movies & Violence

While I don’t know the comic-book world all that well, I have come to enjoy many of the super-hero movies that have come out over the past 20 years. However, the reality that violence is almost always the solution to the problems in super-hero stories is problematic. And while this might be okay or reasonable to a certain degree, especially because comic book stories often represent the struggle between good and evil, the extent to which comic book stories and films use violence has become more and more problematic for me, especially when I look at the tendency to use violence in so many of our culture’s stories today. The use of violence in films deserves another blog post—or series of blogposts, so I’ll put it aside for now, simply noting that Avengers: Age of Ultron is more violent than the first Avengers film, and for the most part it is the stylized comic book violence that most fans of the genre are familiar with.

Plot in One Sentence–No Spoilers Here!

The plot becomes quite convoluted, so without giving away any plot spoilers, here’s a summing up of the basic storyline: Artificial Intelligence made from human and alien ingenuity and materials, which is originally intended to protect humanity and bring about peace,  becomes the super villain Ultron who wants to destroy humanity.

Artistic Achievement vs. Over the Top

Artistically, this film is amazing because it takes on so much and carries most of it off. Director Joss Whedon, who wrote the screenplay with others, is one of my favorite filmmakers because he is brilliant in creating great story, great action, and great character development, all woven together. Considering that the story includes not just the six Avenger characters in the first film (Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, Captain America, Thor, and Hawkeye), but several new major characters, it’s quite amazing that we get a good sense of each character, the story makes sense overall, and there are a couple of really profound moments of character revelation. This film has nail-biting action scenes, strong moments for each of the major characters, and deeper character arc moments—as many of the Avengers must confront their deepest fears and make a choice to be “better than” the evil they are fighting. I also really loved the fact that this is also a pro-life film—a film on the side of life, that the Avengers unequivocally affirm that human life is precious, gracious, and valuable.

As with any comic book movie, but more so in this one, the plot and action sequences are over the top. (And for the most part, deeply enjoyable as well.) In places, though, I found it bloated with too much action and too many plot details that in the end don’t matter that much (but also don’t make that much sense—at least not in first viewing.) In trying to reach for so much, the filmmakers cannot possibly develop it all well (even in 141 minutes). In places the film felt stilted, underdeveloped, or just spent too much time on stuff I didn’t really care about. While some character revelations worked really well, in at least two cases, I found the Avenger characters much less likable. I think Whedon was trying to show us how vulnerable the Avenger super-heroes are, having them struggle with their inner darkness, but in several cases there was no resolution to the struggle.

Without giving away any spoilers, I will also add that a new character takes the lead mid-film in choosing the path that the Avengers will take. Not only did this new character feel problematic to me, the fact that this new character takes the lead undercuts the character development of the original Avengers—both individually and as a group—to the point that both their growth and the storyline felt a bit thwarted, and the ending of the film felt much less satisfying. (As a writer, I’d say a supporting character took over the protagonist’s role, which is a weakness in the plot.)

Also, this is a much bleaker film than the first Avengers film, which I enjoyed tremendously. While Avengers: Age of Ultron is nowhere near the dark tones of something like The Dark Knight, its bleak view of humanity, of the Avengers themselves, and of the future was disappointing—a disappointment that I especially felt in the themes and philosophical dialogues in the film.

Raising the Big Questions

I loved the fact that the script of the film brings in big questions: what is a person? Is humanity evil? Can humanity be saved, and if so, how? And even, who is God? I found the questions about evil and personhood and technology and humanity’s salvation interestingly examined, using dialogue and story questions that are inherent to the story. But I found the religious references a bit disturbing, as they were usually in support of the super-villain.

The film makes lots of references to faith—a quick shot of Pope Francis when Ultron is reviewing the state of humanity, a reference made in very poor taste to robots multiplying as fast as Catholic rabbits (which I winced at). The film also makes many direct biblical references, some to the Old Testament, interpreting the passages to see God as destroyer of humanity. Ultron makes a number of references to the Church: “On this rock I will build my church,” he says as he sets up his headquarters to destroy humanity in an abandoned church building. Probably the most disturbing reference of all was to the revelation of God to Moses at the burning bush (as a character seems to claim to be God). Taken all together, the way these references are used make the Avengers seem rather unfriendly to people of faith.

Everyone will interpret the philosophical or religious “message” of the film for themselves a bit differently, but I think one could make the case that the film is getting across two points:

1) Humanity is deeply flawed, and as long a we make technology our god, we are doomed. While I think this is overly simplistic to interpret the entire film this way, this is certainly supported by the story and dialogue. And it makes this film a great vehicle for beginning a dialogue about the nature of the human person and humanity’s ultimate destiny.

2) Avengers: The Age of Ultron raises and seems to answer the question of whether humanity is doomed—with the answer being that we are doomed, no matter what we do. (The dualism referred to in the film doesn’t actually refer to good and evil equal…but order and chaos, but still gives preference to inevitability of humanity’s doom.) A distorted biblical religion is portrayed as a destructive force on humanity’s path. Father Robert Barron’s commentary saw the philosophy spouted in this film aligning with the thought of Nietzsche, and his points are convincing, especially because of the ending of the film.

Even though in the end the Avengers, with their unwavering commitment to life, are victorious against Ultron, the entire film has resonated with the final conversation with Ultron, which states that humanity is beautiful but doomed anyway.

A Film Deserving Thoughtful “Unpacking”

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a big film worth viewing, not just because it’s a huge commercial success and appealing to people, but also because it addresses big questions. I really appreciate the way Whedon uses excellent storytelling and interesting characters to raise big questions and delve deep into philosophical and religious themes. This is a good film to go to with someone and really pay attention so that afterwards you can engage with these deeper questions. (On the car ride home, we talked nonstop about the film; a few days later, I stayed up past midnight talking about the film with one of my nephews.) For families interested in going, the PG-13 rating feels about right depending on your teen’s maturity, as the best scenario for a teenager to see the film would be with a parent so they can unpack the perspectives offered by the film on the meaning of life and biblical faith.

For more

…on the deeper message of the film in a religious context, check out: Paul Asay’s Patheos review at Watching God, and Kevin Nye’s perspective on Avengers: Age of Ultron as a poignant conversation on fear and how it affects us as a culture and spiritually.

Join in our Novena to Mary Queen of Apostles

I’m re-posting this from my Co-Author Your Life with God Blog, in case you would like to join in the novena and add your prayer intentions!

queenofapostles
Today, we begin the novena to Mary, Queen of Apostles. This feast day is celebrated on May 23rd this year–the Saturday before Pentecost, when Mary gathered the apostles in prayer to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. Of course, when the Holy Spirit descended, the Apostles received very special graces to go forth and carry out their mission!  It’s a very special feast day for my community as communicators of the Gospel, because Mary is the ultimate Communicator of the Word of God. 

Our Pauline website has an explanation of what the title means. In the images of Mary, Queen of Apostles, Mary is holding Jesus out–as if to give him away. Blessed James Alberione describes the meaning of this gesture very specifically: “In the ‘Hail, Holy Queen,’ the Church describes her [Mary] to us with very beautiful titles, but the most beautiful is the one we see portrayed in the new painting of the Queen of the Apostles, in which the Madonna does not clasp Jesus to her heart, but holds him out to the Apostles, as her most sweet fruit, in order that they, in turn, will hold him out to humanity.”

For our purpose as discerners, Mary is also known as the “Spouse of the Spirit” because she so closely listened to, treasured, and responded to the invitations of the Spirit.

I invite each of you to send in your prayer intentions–you can email me if you want to remain anonymous, or send me a message on Twitter. (@SisterMPaul) If you add it in as a comment below, I will cut and paste all the prayer intentions (including the initials of those who wish to be anonymous), and we can all pray for each other on our discernment journeys.

I will post up a short prayer each day of the novena, so that if you check in over the next nine days, we can unite not just in intention, but also focus our prayers. The prayer below is an excerpt from our Founder’s prayer of entrusting to Mary–his own version of Consecration to Mary. It’s a beautiful prayer to begin our novena:

Receive me, Mary, Mother, Teacher and Queen,
among those whom you love, nourish, sanctify and guide,
in the school of Jesus Christ, the Divine Master.
You identify in God’s mind those whom he calls,
and for them you have special prayers, grace, light and consolations.
My Master Jesus Christ entrusted himself wholly to you,
from the Incarnation to the Ascension.
For me this is doctrine, example and an ineffable gift.
I too place myself entirely into your hands.
Obtain for me the grace to know, imitate and love always more
the Divine Master, Way and Truth and Life.

                                                                                                                – Blessed James Alberione

49th World Communications Day Mass–Come Celebrate with Us!

For any media professionals in the Boston area, come celebrate the 49th World Communications Day with us! For lots more information, visit: www.pauline.org/WCDMass

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We are looking forward to developing other events that explore our Pauline spirituality of communication with those for whom we pray–those who work in the media. If you are interested in finding out more, drop me an email, or join us for the Mass!