marriage and the possibilities of human love

This week, while sitting in a bakery, I picked up the June 30 edition of the Minneapolis StarTribune and read this sobering headline:

Weddings a less religious affair: Church weddings are now a minority, as Minnesota couples choose convenience over tradition

The cultural shift described by the article is very dramatic:

Religious institutions hosted only 22% of weddings in 2017, according to a survey by the Knot, a leading wedding news website. That’s a swift decline from the 41% in 2009.

Barns, ranches and banquet halls are among the top beneficiaries of the shift.

Catholic churches have been particularly hard hit. The number of weddings nationwide plunged from 326,000 in 1990 to 143,000 in 2018 — despite an increase in the Catholic population. In Minnesota, there are half as many Catholic church weddings today, with 3,100 last year, as in 1990.

In just ten years, the number of marriages performed by religious institutions has dropped by 50%.

And then this story of how it is playing out:

Even some couples whose first choice is a church ceremony often change their minds because of requirements. Raised Catholic, Emily and Joe Beckers expected to be married in a Catholic church. But the Maplewood couple was put off by the marriage preparation classes, which seemed too “faith based,” and the required weekend retreat with other couples. They also wanted a personalized wedding ceremony and worried that couldn’t happen.

There was even a bigger hurdle. Joe Beckers was divorced, and for the marriage to be recognized in the church, he would need to get an annulment of his first marriage.

The wedding plans shifted gears, and they ended up at Embassy Suites in St. Paul.

Said Emily Beckers: “We were able to tailor every detail to our relationship.”

God, the sacraments, and the church are fading in the minds of young couples. No longer are these things considered important to the success or vitality of their relationship. What matters more is the ability to make the ceremony a triumph of self-expression. Is it any wonder that marriages fail so often? They are little more than houses built on sand.

Pope Saint John Paul II was prophetic in his sense about the direction that marriage was headed with young people. He describes the dynamic delicately and profoundly in his play about the sacrament of marriage. One of the characters in the drama is an old jeweler, a man who prepares the rings for young couples. He represents the priest, the witness of the sacrament and the one who, in the person of Christ, offers the blessing on behalf of the Church.

CHRISTOPHER
When we took the rings I felt your hand trembling….
We forgot to pay attention to the face of that old man,
whom Mother told me about: his eyes are said to be very expressive.
It is not our fault that we read nothing
in his eyes; and he said little — things we knew anyway.
So do not be surprised, Mother, that his words left no trace
(things we knew anyway — we did not sense greatness),
and Monica’s trembling hands told me much more.
I was engrossed in her being moved, and in my own
experience of her being moved, which I shared fully
— and I saw us two deep down in our experience:
I think I love her very much.

MONICA
We were taken up with each other — how could we tear ourselves away…
He did nothing to fascinate us…
he simply measured, first, the circumference of our fingers, then of the rings,
as an ordinary craftsman would. There was no artistry in it even.
He did not bring us closer to anything. All the beauty remained
in our own feeling. He did not widen or narrow anything
…I was absorbed by my love — and by nothing else, it seems.

TERESA
This frightened me, however… Does the old jeweler not act anymore with the force of his eyes and his word? Or is it that those two are unable to feel that force, hidden in his look and his speech. Is it that they are different?…
What are you building, children? What cohesion
are these feelings of yours going to have beyond the old jeweler’s message
of which the vertical axis cuts across
every marriage in this world?

The Jeweler’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla

Clearly the Church has its work cut out for it if it hopes to be given the opportunity to assist young couples in preparing well for marriage in any kind of meaningful way… leading them beyond the fantasy and the sentimentality, toward the bedrock of a love that pours itself out selflessly on behalf of the beloved.

For more about the play The Jeweler’s Shop, click here.

The Jeweler’s Shop

In the fall of 2014, Open Window Theatre in Minneapolis performed The Jeweler’s Shop, one of my favorite plays. It was written by Karol Wojtyla (who later became Pope St. John Paul II).

The Jeweler's Shop - Open Window Theatre

On Wednesday, October 22, 2014, immediately following a performance of the play, I joined three others in a panel discussion of the text. I don’t know nearly as much about John Paul II, the theater, or the play as the others on the panel, but on the basis of my sheer enthusiasm for the play, I was invited to participate.

Here’s a short description of the play, from the official English translation:

Love is “one of the greatest dramas of human existence,” writes Pope John Paul II. In this illuminating three-act play — here in the only English translation authorized by the Vatican — he explores relationships between men and women, the joys — and the pain — of love and marriage. The action unfolds in two settings at once: a street in a small town, outside the local jeweler’s shop (people go to buy their wedding rings there), and the mysterious inner landscape of personal hopes and fears, loves and longings. Each act focuses on a different couple: the first happily planning their wedding, the second long-married and unhappy, the third about to marry but full of doubts. Writing with power and understanding about a love that survives the grave, a love that has withered and died, a love budding out of complexes and insecurities, the Pope addresses such fundamental human concerns as: What does it mean to fall in love? When do we know that a love is real — and can it last? If it dies, how do we go on living — and loving — again? There are no easy answers, and there is no happy ending — such is the nature of men and women, and such is the nature of love — but there is hope, if we only acknowledge our need and accept the risks of a deep and lasting commitment. This is a play full of wisdom on a subject of great relevance to all, and it provides a special insight into the thoughts of the man who, like no other, has captured the imagination of people of all faiths throughout the world…. Karol Wojtyla — Pope John Paul II — has long been involved with the theater. As a student of literature, then priest, bishop and archbishop, he acted, directed, wrote dramatic criticism, made a Polish translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and has authored six plays. (source)

The panel discussion lasted about an hour. Here it is in audio format:

Saint Judas

After seeing this story out of Buffalo, New York in yesterday’s news, it seems to me that I need to get my novel and screenplay about seminary life (Saint Judas) written at the first opportunity. As it turns out, life is sometimes more salacious than fiction.

What I learned from my seminary experience was basically this:

1) it was an institution riddled with people who didn’t know who they were

2) since they didn’t know who they were, they were insecure and shifty; in a word: they lacked integrity

3) these people would say one thing and do another, thus fostering a climate of distrust

4) at that point, Satan could schedule a long vacation… he had other people to carry out his charism of sowing division

In shorthand: identity issues led to integrity issues, and integrity issues led to trust issues. It’s as old as Genesis 3.

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requesting prayers for a writing project

This summer, I am at long last drafting a novel that I have been brooding over for seventeen years, since I completed the 2002 Act One writing program in Chicago. Once I have the story in novel form, I hope to adapt it into a screenplay.

The screenplay is set in an arena I know intimately – namely, an American Catholic seminary in the 1990s. Given recent developments in the scandals in the Church, the story seems especially timely. This is not a documentary, or a scandal script, per se, but really intended as a theological thriller in the vein of Charles Williams’s novel Descent Into Hell.

As you might imagine, this is rather highly charged material, that has to stare squarely into the face of some very uncomfortable realities. As Flannery O’Connor once wrote in an essay entitled The Church and the Fiction Writer:

A belief in fixed dogma cannot fix what goes on in life or blind the believer to it…. If the Catholic writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is. An affirmative vision cannot be demanded of him without limiting his freedom to observe what man has done with the things of God….

It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life; and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the supernatural is apt gradually to be lost. Fiction, made according to its own laws, is an antidote to such a tendency, for it renews our knowledge that we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions. The Catholic fiction writer, as fiction writer, will look for the will of God first in the laws and limitations of his art and will hope that if he obeys these, other blessings will be added to his work. The happiest of these, and the one he may at present least expect, will be the satisfied Catholic reader.

I’ve hesitated for a long time to move forward with the project. Only recently have I felt ready (personally) to address this subject in a way that I hope will be redemptive for the audience. At least I know that the story, as it is unfolding, has been redemptive for me.

I plan to first draft the project as a novel, and then work on its adaptation for the screen. (I understand that Graham Greene took this approach with The Third Man).

I’d be grateful if you’d consider keeping this in your prayers. The operative title for the project is Saint Judas.

Pre-work reading includes:

The Third Man – Graham Greene
Goodbye, Good Men – Michael Rose
Ungodly Rage – Donna Steichen
Trojan Horse in the City of God – Dietrich von Hildebrand
Descent into Hell – Charles Williams
The Chocolate War – Robert Cormier
The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene
Story – Robert McKee

the upset of Easter, and the last things

For your Easter meditation, here are a couple of excerpts from an RCIA Hollywood podcast on The Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell/Purgatory

the Christian life: comfort by way of upset

It would be interesting to take a survey, asking people two questions:

“What is the most comforting religion in the world?”

“What is the most upsetting religion in the world?”

It would be interesting to know what people would say to these two questions.

I think that the most comforting religion in the world would be Christianity, without question. And as far as what would be the most upsetting religion in the world, I think it also would be Christianity. I think it’s both. It is the most upsetting, and the most comforting, because of original sin. There’s just no way back to the Garden except through the experience of death.

Our life, right now, as we live it, in all of its comfort — in its native form for us… I don’t think we always want to leave this comfort nest, even if there’s something better, because we don’t know that something better.

Our life has really been turned upside-down by the Fall, and to turn it upside-right, we had better be ready for an upset. Imagine a boat sitting in Paradise on the waters of creation. Then imagine the boat being capsized. That’s what original sin has done to our existence. We’ve gotten very used to being in that tipped-over boat. That’s become our native home, that’s what we understand, that’s what we know: the experience of sin and of fear. And so now Christ comes, and He wants to right the boat again, but how do we receive that? We’re afraid, we’re threatened, we’re challenged by that. How dare he turn this boat over? How dare he upset our life? In fact, he’s righting the boat, but we experience it as an upset.

So the idea of Christianity is really that comfort comes by way of upset. We just don’t know it yet. When it’s all upset in our life, I think we discover the truth that finally the boat is being righted, and what we had become so familiar with was in fact just the pilgrim state of this valley of tears, and now we are discovering our true home in the Father’s house….

Evaluating one’s life in the light of the Last Things

I think it’s good to make an annual self-evaluation during Holy Week.

Here’s a reflection on the last things, which I’ve based on Dr. Peter Kreeft’s discussion in his book Fundamentals of the Faith. He has a chapter on each of the Last Things. From those essays, I’ve constructed a self-interview of sorts. It’s an opportunity to make an evaluation of our lives in light of things ultimate.

The first question is about death:

What death am I facing — whether little or large — and how can I meet it with Christ? It might be worthwhile to re-visit that question in a year and see if there has been any resurrection in this area or not.

The second question has to do with judgment:

The experience of judgment is the experience of being laid bare… everything is revealed. So the question is: What most needs to be laid bare in me or seen through the eyes of justice… (That’s what justice does… it sees everything)… for the sake of living more justly now, and so that Christ can touch and heal it? Christ is the divine Physician, but unless we show Him our wounds…. It’s not that He doesn’t know the wounds are there, but He needs us to relax enough so that He can actually tend to them.

The third question has to do with heaven:

The question is: What are my false heavens? Or what is my counterfeit paradise? Maybe I have several: maybe it’s the weekend; maybe it’s my job; maybe it’s a relationship. What are those things in my life which are not Paradise but for which I am happy to stop along the way because I’ve found this counterfeit? What keeps me from remembering that this is not a place of rest? I mean, the sabbath is, but other than that? We’re on pilgrimage. What will I do to keep a sense of pilgrimage alive? What will I do to keep my heart alive to the true goal of my existence? So we’re moving from a kind of examination to a resolution: What are we going to do about this?

Then lastly, hell:

What are the areas of drift or complacency in my life? Because I think for those of us who have decided to become Christians… to be baptized and to follow Christ and so forth… we have sort of set out on pilgrimage. It isn’t a question of whether or not I have heaven as a goal for me, but what will keep me from that is if I drift, if I get lax, if I get complacent. Where am I kind of drifting? And what am I going to do about that?

So give yourself some time this week to ask yourself these questions. It has been interesting for me to complete this exercise each year since a Triduum retreat in 2007; it’s been a grace to go back over it each year and to notice that I need to revisit some of them, but with others there really has been grace active in my life.

Blessed Easter! May the Resurrection of Christ transfigure every corner of your existence. May your every tear be joy-stained; behind every upset, may you experience the joy of being discovered by the One who has upset it all, for love of you.