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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Dubruiel’

— 1 —

We’ll make this super quick.

 

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All right! There’s one! Seriously, though – Thursday was a travel day. From Omaha down to College Freshman’s college, where we took him out for lunch, dropped off some treats, got the scoop (everything going fine, it seems), said, “See you at fall break” and then drove on.

 

— 3 —

We’d thought about stopping in St. Louis, but at some point earlier in the week, I realized that we’d get to St. Louis by probably 5 – which meant that all the “attractions” we might want to see would be closed. Sure, the wonderful City Museum would be open, but it’s not that we’re too old for that now (14), but more…who wants to do that without a partner in crime? And we’ve been to the Arch, which is great, sure, but worth a stop on a trip like this – a “stop” meaning an overnight? Nope.

So Memphis it is, with a brief stop in Ste. Genevieve – a place I’ve wanted to visit – the first permanent European settlement in Missouri. It was a somewhat illuminating sidetrip – many original structures crowded on small streets, far enough from the river to hopefully avoid the floods – a small river ferry just outside of town as well – but it would probably be better to do when things like the visitor’s center and the museum were open and the ferry was running.

-4–

We’ll do one major thing here this morning – a site we haven’t done yet (no, not Graceland – I went to Graceland years ago, and with a $40 admission charge now –  er, no.), eat at a favorite barbecue place, then head home. It really does seem impossible that it was only a week ago that we were heading through here with a about-to-be college freshman and me, a very nervous parent. It seems a million years ago, both in time and emotion.

Life, indeed, goes on.

–5 —

A couple of months ago, I was asked to write a Diary feature for the Catholic Herald. I wrote it – then rewrote it from scratch in the very early hours of the morning it was due in a hotel room in Caceres, Spain because, as I keep griping, my laptop for the moment is this STUPID Chromebook (don’t buy one) that I had to buy for former college senior’s former senior year in his former school, and little did I know that if you forget your Google password and think, “Eh, I’ll just reset it” – that resetting wipes everything from the Chromebook – including the Word app you’d downloaded because you hate Google Docs.

(Don’t buy a Chromebook)

Ahem. Okay. Well, so I wrote – and rewrote it, and then sort of forgot about it. They never sent me a link to the published version. Yesterday, I was thinking, “Hey, I wonder about that Corpus Christi piece – did it ever actually get published?”

Well, here it is!

Not a lot to it, but it might make ya think, as they say.

— 6 —

This is great. Absolutely great. We’ll be using this.

Aquinas 101 from the Dominicans (who else?)

— 7 —

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2020 Devotional available. 

Son’s new novel available.

Son posts film thoughts every day during the week. And, as I mentioned on Twitter earlier this week: He has a full-time job, writes fiction, watches tons of movies and writes about them daily (Tarantino this week) has a wife and a five-year old and still has found time to read War and Peace over the past couple of months. Yeah.

Here’s his blog post on the novel!

 

For more Quick Takes go visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

 

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Of the many saints we could celebrate today, she’s the one I’ll pick. I’ll start by highlighting a 10-year (ten!) old blog post of mine, written the day of her canonization.

(She is the foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor.)

I see the retreat master this past weekend was a Discalced Carmelite and the retreat was for Third-Order Carmelites (ah…that explains the big scapulars. Got it.) . He preached a very good homily tying together the Scriptures, the canonization of the saints that had taken place that day (he was quick enough to look up the Holy Father’s homily so he could quote from it at 11am Mass),  and, well, life.

What struck me about his homily was his description of three of the newly canonized – St. Damien, St. Jeanne Jugan, and St. Rafael Arnaiz Baron, as “outcasts” of a sort: St. Damien for his life among the lepers; St. Jeanne Jugan because of her removal as superior of the community she founded, and St. Rafael because of his health problems (diabetes), which prohibited him from joining the Trappists in the way he had hoped (he was able to become an Oblate, but not a brother or priest)

Sell all you have and give the money to the poor.

All of it.

Pope Benedict’s homily:

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is the question that opens the brief dialogue we heard in the Gospel, between a man, identified elsewhere as the rich young man, and Jesus (cf Mk 10:17-30). We do not have very many details about this nameless character: all the same from the little we do have we are able to perceive his sincere desire to attain eternal life by living an honest and virtuous existence on earth. In fact he knows the commandments and has obeyed them since childhood. And yet all of this, while important, is not sufficient — says Jesus — there is one thing missing, but it is an essential thing. Seeing then that he is willing, the Divine Master looks at him with love and proposes the qualitative leap, he calls him to the heroism of sanctity, he asks him to abandon everything and follow him: “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me!” (V. 21).

“Then come, follow me!” This is the Christian vocation that flows from a proposal of love by the Lord, and that can be realized only thanks to our loving reply. Jesus invites his disciples to the total giving of their lives, without calculation or personal gain, with unfailing trust in God. The saints welcome this demanding invitation and set about following the crucified and risen Christ with humble docility. Their perfection, in the logic of a faith that is humanly incomprehensible at times, consists in no longer placing themselves at the center, but choosing to go against the flow and live according to the Gospel.

And after Mass:

At the end of Mass, Benedict XVI made his way to the raised dias in front of the basilica, where tens of thousands of pilgrims were waiting gathered in the square, with whom he prayed the Angelus. In his reflection before the Marian prayer, he returned to the value of the witness of the saints canonized today. He asked French-speaking pilgrims to follow the example of St. Jeanne Jugan, “to take care of the poorest and smallest” to support with prayer and work “the generous people involved in the fight against leprosy and all other forms of leprosy due to the lack of love,  ignorance or meanness”. The pope also asked them to help the work of the Synod for Africa in progress this week in Rome. Benedict XVI also recalled the figure of St. Damian for Flemish pilgrims: “This holy priest was led by God to allow his vocation flourish into a total ‘yes’. May the intercession of Our Lady and the apostle of lepers free the world of leprosy, make us open to the love of God and give us joy and enthusiasm in service to our brothers and sisters. ”   Among the many pilgrims, the pope also greeted – in English – a group of survivors of nuclear attacks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “I pray – said the pontiff – that the world will never witness such a mass destruction of innocent lives again. May God bless you all, as well as your families and your loved ones at home”.

More on St. Jeanne Jugan, including the time Charles Dickens met her:

Jeanne chose the name Sister Mary of the Cross but was commonly known as Mother Marie of the Cross. She would often say, “the poor are Our Lord.” Locals began to call her humble sisters and their hospitality efforts, the Little Sisters of the Poor. 

In 1851 a small group of Little Sisters crossed the English Channel to establish the first home outside France, in a London suburb. Spain was next, followed by Belgium, Ireland, North Africa and North America. In just the last decade, new homes for the elderly have opened in India, Peru, and the Philippines. 

Like the grain of what that falls to the earth and dies, Jeanne’s life has produced great fruit that continues today—but she was not always honored or appreciated during her life.  One day a new priest who was put in charge of the young congregation decided to replace Jeanne as superior and place her in retirement without any say in the decision.  While others protested what was viewed as an injustice, Jeanne simply accepted it as the will of God, and went about begging for contributions to support the growing order. The priest was later removed by the Holy See in 1890. Jeanne told her sisters, “We are grafted into the cross and we must carry it joyfully unto death.” When she died 27 years later, few of the young Little Sisters even knew that she was the foundress.

Once after meeting Jeanne Jugan, Charles Dickens said, “there is in this woman something so calm, and so holy, that in seeing her I know myself to be in the presence of a superior being. Her words went straight to my heart, so that my eyes, I know not how, filled with tears.”  

 

 

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It’s what they call them over EWTN way down the road.  Here’s one for you.

 

 

(Yes, posted before – from the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville –  but today’s the remembrance – the Beheading of St. John the Baptist.)

 

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Coming to you from Omaha…

We’re circling back. Going to make a couple more stops, then God willing, back home on Friday. Today I drove across South Dakota once again – but through the northern part of the state, west to east this time. I’d thought about a few different stops along the way, but finally just decided to forge on and do the Big Thing we’d been thinking about the whole time, which was the Omaha Zoo.

*Cue elderly mother doing one more speech on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and the old days of four channels and one nature show*

It’s said to be one of the top zoos in the country – second after San Diego, for some who rate such things. We got there mid-afternoon, and since most of the zoo closes at five, with the enclosed buildings remaining open until 6, we hit the outdoor exhibits first and saved the buildings for last.

What did we know? It made sense at the time. But honestly? We probably could have skipped most of the outdoor exhibits and headed straight to the buildings. It being late afternoon, most of the outdoor animals were sleeping, mostly hidden, and there really wasn’t much we hadn’t seen before. At this point I was thinking, Not so sure about these high ratings…

But then we got the desert building. And then the rainforest. Both were fabulous and well worth the price of admission. Well-designed, interesting, and with several animals we’d never seen before. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to the aquarium, which I’m thinking is probably just as good.

(The gorilla exhibit was fine – but the best of those I’ve seen was at the Atlanta Zoo, by far. Best chimps? Knoxville. They had orangutans in Omaha with a decent habitat, but orangutans in captivity always seem so depressed to me – it depresses me.)

Anyway, we spent as much time as we could in these buildings, but the story really is the bats.

We rushed to the rainforest building, noted a sign telling us there would be a “high level of bat activity,” thought it meant that the bats would be flying around a lot in their enclosure, so sure, fine, when whoosh! right by our heads. A bat. Followed by another and another – and we looked up – and there they were – everywhere. Clinging to the walls right beside us, swirling about, sweeping through the passageways – astonishing. I suppose they are “out” all the time, but of course, sleep all day – and we arrived at 5:30, just as they were awakening and starting to feast. It was fascinating – a bit daunting, but I trust the zoo to not be unleashing any danger on my head, so I was fine – I can imagine, though, someone being really terrified by this, and maybe even in these lawsuit-happy-days – moved to action. Which is why we were…surprised at the vagueness of the “warning” contrasted with the quite intense activity of the bats all around us. At one point we went to the lower level to walk on the “trail” on the “rainforest” floor. There was a woman sitting on a bench outside. She swept her hand over her hair, scowled and said, “I hope you like bats.”

I’m guessing she…didn’t.

If you’d like to see video of the spectacle, go visit my Instagram page. Phew!

 

 

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Fascinating:

Construction on the Church of St. Dismas began in 1939.  It was the brainchild of Fr. Ambrose Hyland (1900-54), the chaplain of the facility, who had previously celebrated Mass in the prison auditorium, which he thought was “not adequate” for their needs, said Fr. Bill Edwards, chaplain of the facility 2002-11. Fr. Hyland went on to “put his heart and soul into building the church, which created a good environment in which the inmates could worship.”

Materials and funding for the church were donated; gangster “Lucky” Luciano (1897-1962) was an inmate at Clinton in the 1930s and donated red oak for the pews. Other significant donations include two angel carvings said to be from the flagship of explorer Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521). The angels were donations from the Magellan family.

Inmates supplied labor to build the church, trained by prison guards, volunteers and other inmates. Among the most notable was forger Carmelo Louis Soraci, who used his talents to create the structure’s colorful stained glass windows, modeling faces after the inmates he knew.  Soraci’s contribution led to his being freed from prison in 1962. Deacon Bushey told the North County Catholic, “It’s really a beautiful church, and the vast majority of the population will never see it.”

Other notable features include a Lourdes grotto located outside the church.  The structure was dedicated in 1941, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.

See the slideshow here

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Elsewhere in the state of New York:

A New York City public arts program has said it will not build a statue in honor of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, despite the saint receiving the most nominations in a public poll. 

She Built NYC was established in June of 2018 under the patronage of Chirlane McCray, wife of New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, to create more statues of women around the city of New York. The public were asked to nominate women for a potential statue and the campaign received over 2,000 votes for over 300 eligible women.

The results of the nominating period were published in December, with Mother Cabrini receiving 219 nominations – more than double the number received by second-place finisher, Jane Jacobs. 

Despite the public vote, the New York Post reported on Aug. 10 that the selection committee, led by McCray and former New York deputy mayor Alicia Glen, had excluded the first American saint from the planned statutes, instead choosing to honor Rep. Shirley Chisolm, Katherine Walker, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Elizabeth Jennings Graham, Billie Holiday, and Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias. They received the third, fifth, seventh, 19th, 22nd, 24th and 42nd-most nominations, respectively. 

LGBT rights activists Johnson and Rivera were biological males and will be featured together in a single statue. Both were self-identified “drag queens” and co-founders of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. The pair received a combined 86 nominations.

So….two men will be recognized as notable New York women.

Got it.

I keep telling you….

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Some of us may not give two figs about college football, but it’s always great to see SEC Shorts back in business:

 

-4–

Learn to read, you know, books again:

But what does this science have to do with the discussion surrounding modern, digital culture? Wolf outlines three major concerns with the way digital media affects the malleable neurology of our reading brain. The first is the way in which it encourages our novelty bias. Already wired to give primary attention to new signals in our environment, a feature which protects us in the event of danger, it takes concentrated effort and time to teach the brain to focus on letters and words. However, the scrolling and constantly updating sound bytes of the internet split our attention. As Wolf describes it, “In multitasking, we unknowingly enter an addiction loop as the brain’s novelty centers becomes rewarded for processing shiny new stimuli, to the detriment of our prefrontal cortex, which wants to stay on task and gain the rewards of sustained effort and attention.” As we give into this rhythm of reading, we lose what she calls cognitive patience. Not only do we struggle to focus our attention on the page, but we fail to spend time with the content of our reading. The digitally-trained brain has a harder time pausing to digest the meaning and implications of what has been read. In this way, the highest purposes of reading, self-reflection and the pursuit of wisdom, are lost. 

Her second concern addresses the substantive nature of the page. The physical dimension of print provides readers “a knowledge of where they are in time and space” and “allows them to return to things over and over again and learn from them.” She calls this the recursive dimension of reading. Screens do not have quite the same “thereness” as hard copy. The words disappear as we scroll, and we therefore lose the sense of their permanence. In early years the recursive dimension is especially important as children experience repeat encounters with a book. Wolf says, “It involves their whole bodies; they see, smell, hear, and feel books.” 

Such repetition allows them to develop the quality which comprises her third concern: background knowledge. Human beings can only acquire insight by comparing new concepts with those they already know. Wolf recounts her attempt to read Ethiopian children a story about an octopus. They had never seen or heard of such a creature and could not comprehend the context in which the story took place. For modern children of the West, Wolf sees a similar problem: “That environment is providentially rich in what it gives, but paradoxically today, it may give too much and ask too little.” 

 

–5 —

Today, I’ve got a post up about St. Rose of Lima – worth your time, I think. I hope!

As well as an earlier post on St. Bernard here and here. 

Also check out a post earlier this week on what the television shows Dead to Me and After Life say about death, loss and grief. 

Finally, take a look at our Cathedral rector’s post on Mass options: “The Options that Divide Us”

Yes, the multiplicity of options that I listed above are legislated by the Church, and so are legitimate variations: I am not disputing that. What I am pointing out is the way that they have led, in practice, to a subjective approach that has contributed to our being divided into camps. We may well choose certain options, and legally — but we may choose them for the wrong reasons. And we often have done so.

The way forward, which I think will help us to achieve better unity within our worship, is two-fold:

  1. Realize, through liturgical education, that worship calls us out of ourselves and challenges us – it is not something we create based on personal tastes or questions of efficiency or convenience;

  2. Seek always those options that are in continuity with what was done by our ancestors.

 

— 6 —

And we’re off. It’s college move-in day this weekend, followed by Son #5 and I doing some gallivanting for a week or so. We’ll be heading to a spot that I’ve never seen before, so do check back in for posts on that. As well as Instagram, of course.

Be sure to check back in to see how my big plans about Being Educated in the car go in reality…

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2020 Devotional available. 

Son’s new novel available.

Son posts film thoughts every day during the week – here’s his take on the new Dumbo. 

 

For more Quick Takes go visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

 

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Sorting out St. Rose of Lima can be a challenge.  Perhaps you know the basics – what I knew for most of my life: mystic, extreme ascetic.  When I was a girl, I remember reading about how she drove her metal-spiked crown of thorns into her scalp. That was, not surprisingly, my main takeaway.

Digging deeper,  I read through most of this 19th century biography – a translation into English from French. I read what chapters I could (the first two) of this reassessment and psychological unpacking, and finally settled in a more comfortable place than either of those with a chapter from Quartet in Heaven (1962) by British author Sheila Kaye-Smith.

What to make of her, the first saint of the Americas, this young woman who engaged in such extreme mortifications that even some of her contemporary confessors and other observers, including her mother,  thought she was going too far?

It might be tempting for us moderns to dismiss figures such as Rose. She was, we might gently suggest, mentally ill.  She was a victim and product of a guilt-ridden Catholic culture who could not simply accept the grace of God, but thought she had to abnegate herself in order to merit it.

But we shouldn’t do that. It is not helpful or right, in a Catholic context, to be so dismissive. Nor is it necessary to uncritically embrace all the hagiography. We must also always remember that in the Catholic view of saints, we bring two perspectives: to imitate st. rose of limaand to admire. We are not called to imitation of every action of every saint, because we live in different cultures, with various personalities. So not feeling the pull to jam a crown of metal thorns into our scalps should not cause anxiety. It’s okay.

In thinking this over, this struck me: it seems to me that even the saints who pursued extreme ways of personal asceticism did not indicate that everyone do the same.

St. Catherine, in her many letters, does not advise her correspondents that the solution to their spiritual problems was to live as she did, on a single grain of rice a day and sleeping on a board (when she slept). There might be a call to change, to repent, and perhaps to embrace some small mortification, but mostly what we read in her writings, at least, is an urgent invitation to realize how deeply Christ loves us and to live in that light, not the darkness the world offers.

They seem quite aware of the uniqueness of their own path, and do not suggest that theirs is the standard by which all others should be judged. In fact, the saints seem to take the opposite tack: as stubborn as they are about their own mortifications, they tend to keep them secret as much as they are able and are uncomfortable with “followers” who are following them rather than following Christ.

In trying to understand St. Rose, these thoughts come to mind.

She sensed a call to belong to Christ alone. In her culture and her family circumstance, she had to go to extremes to make sure that was clear to everyone and she would not be forced into marriage. Perhaps you can see this as manipulation, or you can see it as a strong rejection of the world in a most personal way.

It is interesting and important to note that hardly anyone knew of these mortifications during her life. The people of Lima who flocked to her funeral by the thousands certainly did not – they came because this young woman radiated the love of Christ.

St. Rose would say that her mortifications were in fidelity to her call to conform herself completely to Christ. Christ sacrificed himself. Christ’s supreme act of love was his Passion and death.  Many of us think of this call differently today: to accept what sufferings happen to come our way in a sacrificial spirit, in imitation of Christ, rather than to create them ourselves. Perhaps the experience of St. Rose can expand our own approach by helping us understand that living as a disciple does, indeed mean conforming ourselves to the Crucified Christ, accepting that the Cross will be a part of whatever path we follow, but that if we do find ourselves conforming to the world instead, it is time to take action and be more intentional – to make sacrifices in addition to accepting them as they come.

I also wondered, based on the minimal reading I did on this, if perhaps Rose knew herself and we should trust her. Perhaps she knew that she had a tendency to vanity. Perhaps she knew that even if she gave up marriage and lived as sort of anchorite, intensely focused on Christ, that she would still draw attention and that attention, even if it is directed at spiritual rather than physical beauty, would be a temptation to her. Perhaps her extreme mortifications were directed at keeping herself conformed to the humble Christ in the most radical way, a way that she knew, for herself, would be at risk as people were drawn to her. Perhaps she wanted to keep herself radically open to Christ in her physical weakness so that she would always remember it was Jesus, not her, that the people of Lima desired and sought.

I don’t know. I’m just guessing.

It comes down to this. Different culture, but same Jesus, same faith. We are tempted to dismiss it, but that’s not Catholic. Instead, we dig deeper, realize our own cultural limitations, and listen. Because, you know, she’s not wrong.

It’s a mystery, but suffering can be beneficial and bear tremendous fruit. She’s not wrong.

Christian discipleship is about conforming ourselves to Christ. She’s not wrong. 

The world is beautiful (Rose grew flowers!) but can stand between us and God if we don’t know how to love properly.  She’s not wrong.

“Success”  in the spiritual life can lead to an inflated sense of self and hubris.

She’s not wrong.

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He’s dead, she’s dead, they’re dead, so now what?

I’ve experienced some loss and grief, and so have you. This past year Netflix has brought us a couple of high-profile short series that, you might have noticed, have death and its aftermath at the center: the unlikely-friends-comedy-mystery Dead to Me and the Ricky Gervais comedy After Life.

I’ve watched them both – Dead to Me when it came out in the spring, and After Life just Related imagethis past weekend. Neither was entirely satisfying, and I’ll say that Dead to Me was especially disappointing considering the cast and that I was predisposed to dislike After Life anyway.

This won’t be a full-scale review, but more of a (brief) reflection on what interested me in both shows: the particular aspects of grief and loss they evoked.

Dead to Me stars Christina Applegate as Jen, a woman whose husband was killed in a hit-and-run accident while out jogging. At a grief retreat, she’s befriended by Judy, played by the wonderful Linda Cardellini (you may know her from Mad Men). There are all kinds of plot twists and the show lurches between dark comedy and more than one mystery – not only who killed Jen’s husband, but who exactly Judy is and why she’s latched on to Jen. I eventually lost interest in the plot machinations. Less convolution would have served the story well.

But there was a truth at the core of Dead to Me that went beyond female bonding.

What gets everything going is Jen’s obsessive, driving need to know what happened. How did her husband die? Why was in that place at that time? Who did this? What could she have done differently? Was she herself at all responsible?

It’s a natural series of questions for this character, given the very real mystery and crime that caused her husband’s death. Nonetheless, it highlights, rather effectively, similar questions that any less dramatic death tends to raise in the hearts of the living: How did this happen? Whose fault is it? Could we have done anything differently?

And whether the death in question was sudden or expected, accidental, natural or criminal, whether our initial reaction is acceptance, relief or shock, eventually the questions and doubts hit, and depending on the specifics and who we are, we might spend some time wondering about it all and even obsessing about our own mysteries. We run scenarios in our head, we ponder the chain of choices that got the dead to the point at which death found them and wonder if there could have been different choices made that would have cleared a different path.

And – as Jen discovers – sometimes the answers we uncover can make us, at the very least, uncomfortable, or even rock our world. When death irrupts into life, the living suddenly find themselves with access to the dead’s secrets – as we go through our parents’ houses and papers, our spouses’ and friends’ records and letters. Some questions are answered, but more will probably be raised – with no one around to answer them any more. We thought we knew them, we thought we understood, we were confident that past events told one story, but in fact the real story might have been something quite different all along.

The thing is, this is true all the time, even apart from death. How well do we know others? Not very well. We live in a narrative that’s only a sliver of reality. That doesn’t make it unreal, necessarily – although then again, it might be.  Death has the power to force the question – what really happened here? What did I do wrong? What did I do right? Did I understand anything at all?

That’s the real, essential question of Dead to Me, and I just wish that it had more of a place in the show than wacky hijinks and mystery for its own sake.

After Life is also dark, also a comedy, none of that unexpected as it comes from the mind and pen of Ricky Gervais. I’m not a huge fan of Gervais, especially in his self-important Professional Atheist guise, although I did like The Office and Extras and very much – very much –  appreciate his firm dismissal of transgender activism and other aspects of Cancel Culture. He’s one of the few consistent public figures out there on this score: Yes, I have the right to express my views, no matter how noxious they’re judged to be – and that means others do as well.

Gervais plays Tony, a man whose wife died of cancer some months before we get rolling. They were together for twenty-five years, and childless. Tony works at a small-town newspaper and spends his days having foul-tempered run-ins with various townspeople and co-workers. Episodes are peppered with Tony watching videos left by his wife when she was in the hospital, as well as videos he made of their life together.

The bottom line of the plot here is: Tony has lost his world, and doesn’t see a reason to Image result for after life gervaiskeep existing. Suicide is continually on his mind, even when he chooses against it – that choice gives him, as he puts it, a “superpower” – to keep on living life exactly as he pleases, saying and doing what he wants, knowing that at any point he can just end it.

After a few episodes of this jerk behavior, we have a shift – a decision Tony makes results in a tragedy (although he never really takes ownership of it), which results in him rethinking things – along with a few other encounters, he comes to understand that, yes, he has a “superpower”  – to impact the lives of others for good.

So…(again, spoiler alert) – the last episode gives us the equivalent of a Hallmark/Lifetime movie or It’s a Wonderful Life as Tony opens up to life again, finally realizes that he’s not the only person in the world who’s suffering and sprinkles the fairy dust of good deeds over his surroundings. It’s almost shockingly sentimental.

There’s truth about grief and loss in After Life. Dead to Me brings out the questions a death can prompt. After Life centers on the wrenching world-shifting of loss, the question of what is the world now if my world as I knew and loved it is gone? As well as the possible answer of – it’s whatever and it doesn’t matter and so what.

Probably the truest statement in After Life is Tony’s account of his feelings – he’s an atheist remember – that  “I’d rather be nowhere with her than somewhere without her.” As I’ve written before, one of the flashes of empathy I experienced in the aftermath of my husband’s death was just that kind of feeling – being drawn to where ever the deceased was. I wasn’t tempted myself – honestly, I wasn’t – but I understood, in a way that I never had before, how someone, completely lost and thrown out of their world by this kind of loss, could attempt to follow.

The other very true big thing in After Life is the role of others in pulling us out of a loss-centered existence back into life. For Tony, it’s his dog – every time he’s seriously tempted to kill himself, the presence and needs of the dog pulls him back.

The dog plays another interesting role that I’ve not seen commented on – perhaps I’m reading too much into it.

Tony is a person with some warmth, but he’s also got (not surprisingly) that Gervais cruel humor thing going on, even with those he loves. Besides the videos left by his wife, Tony watches old videos that he’d made of moments with her – and up to a point, most of these moments involve him surprising her in a borderline cruel way – dumping water on her, and so on. But then, as events start to turn and some light begins to dawn to break through Tony’s nihilism, the clip he watches has a different tone – it’s the moment when he awakens his wife, not with a loud noise or water, but with this brand new puppy, a ribbon tied around its neck. A sign of the goodness of which he’s capable – a reminder.

Back to the bigger truth – it’s what I found over and over again. In the face of loss, I had to ask a question, and the question centered around my kids. How do I want them to live? They lost their dad at a young age. Devasting. Life-changing. Potentially disastrous. How do I want them to live with that? If I choose to live my life defined by loss and who’s not there any more, that’s one thing – bad enough – but to raise kids to be centered on the hole, the shadow, the absence – instead of on the joy that life promises – well, that’s just cruel and even a little sick, isn’t it?

And what follows from that?

If I want this for my kids – why not want it for myself as well?  If it’s good enough for them – to move on and embrace reality, which includes joy as well as pain – it’s good enough for me, too. Live the way you hope those you love will live.

So there’s the truth bombs of After Life: Death rips your world apart, and healing happens when you recognize that you’re not the center of the world.

Life goes on is one way to say it – but in a bigger, more generous sense: Life goes on, and life is full of hurting people – and despite your pain and loss – or maybe even because of it – you can do something to help.

That’s the superpower of loss, when we are honest about it and ourselves – empathy.

There are a few more things to like about After Life and some that turned me off.

  • The vulgarity is that off-the-charts British mode which makes frequent use of a word that starts with c that even I can’t stand to hear. Hate. It.
  • Gervais is, of course, an argumentative, proud atheist, and gives his characters a couple of opportunities to show off against weak theist strawmen. These are boring. The show is Gervais’ and comes from his worldview, fine. But what makes it less interesting in the end, is the underlying assumption that the theist’s answer to loss and grief is of course simplistic and easy and less “realistic” than the atheist’s. Because no believers ever grapple with mystery and shadow and questions,
  • What’s ironic about this is that the conclusion of After Life is certainly heartwarming, but also…simplistic.
  • I’m not big on demanding things of a piece of art – saying, for example, that a character shouldn’t have done something or said something. But I’m going to go ahead an violate that rule here. Gervais’ character is, indeed a selfish, self-centered jerk, but I still found his reaction to his wife’s death wanting – even in that context. He doesn’t, for example, articulate any resentment or questions about her suffering. I mean – she had cancer. So I guess she suffered? And she certainly suffered in the mental and emotional challenge of confronting death. Most people would bring this into their expressions of loss, atheists and theists both.
  • Nor do we have any sense at all of who she – Lisa – was as a person. The “loss” is all about Tony – about his life and his loss and the hole in his world. Yes, it fits in a way, and simplifies the dramatic trajectory, but it’s almost too simplistic. A big part of recovery in loss, I discovered, is being able to live with the dead in a healthy way – not as ghosts, not as dead and buried, but as a presence whose existence had – and has – meaning. You know you are turning the corner when “thank you that this person existed” begins to outweigh “dammit, this person’s gone” in your thinking.
  • And that’s a thought that’s echoed in a broader context by another character in the series – a woman that Tony encounters in the cemetery. He goes to visit his wife’s grave, she’s there visiting her husband’s of 49 years: I wouldn’t change anything. If I went back and changed one thing I didn’t take, I might lose something that that bad thing eventually took me to. You shouldn’t regret anything or think: “Well, if I went back, I might do this or I might do that”

 

All fine. But in the end After Life falls way short because, ironically, the atheist worldview that critiques Christianity for being all simplistic-pie-in-the-sky-easy-answers offers…easy answers. Why? Because mystery and meaning essentially have no place. Tony learns to live better and move on because he finally listens to the people who are constantly telling him he’s good and funny and “lovely.” And his dog needs him. That’s really….it.

This Baptist blogger puts it very well, I think: 

 Far from portraying grief in grey or gritty terms, the series’ world is permanently sun-lit and serene. Tony lives in a fictional town which is lightly populated, he works a dead-end job but is obviously affluent, giving the whole sequence of events a dream-like, heavenly feel. This is undoubtedly intentional, but one has to question the creative ambition behind this. Are we being consoled that grieving without God and without future hope is hard but ultimately enlightened? Are we really probing the pain of personal loss by using utopia as a backdrop?

The conclusions of the drama are as sunny as the summer bleached pavements on which it unfolds. At the opening of After Life Tony is at war with the world, standing up to opportunist thieves, feeling irked by other people’s eating habits, threatening a school bully with being bludgeoned to death with a hammer, starkly rejecting a date, showing impatience with his elderly father, and knowingly helping someone else to commit suicide. So far, so fearless. But the gradual turn around in Tony’s life is hard to quantify against these earlier behaviours, his empathy for others seeming to be restored through conversations with an elderly widow and a feckless psychotherapist. The resolution to the drama is vacuously redemptive with Tony’s goodness turning around the lives of all who are in his orbit. He resolves to treat others well as a means of grace, reserving his ire only for those who deserve to be handled with contempt.

This is all too easy. It is such a shame that a programme which purports to probe grief, which interrogates God, which heralds humanism, is so lacking in self-awareness and auto-critique. Gervais writes as though Beckett never had, as though existential angst is a thing of the past, as though creation simply awaits its redemption through human good. This is desperately naive, and utterly insufficient to face the true realities of living in the rough stuff of a broken world. Gervais does not want God but he longs for good, he does not want absolutes but he does want altruism, he wants to talk about grief but only as a vehicle for humanistic grace. There are depths to loss which are not plumbed here, there are anxieties and contradictions and cross-pressures which plague our existence as human beings, there are deep wounds which cannot be healed lightly, and After Life does little to address or grapple with any of this.

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