Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lenten Fare - Five Recommendations for Lent

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key, by Santiago Ramos:

 large_magician_blu-ray_4A crop of books have been published recently which attempt to demonstrate that Google is making us dumber. A scientific study has declared that Facebook is a proximate cause to 1 in 5 divorces in the United States. Charlie Sheen. There are many reasons for abjuring or curbing the use of media technologies during Lent. But it is also obvious that these technologies are not going to go away, barring an unwelcome disaster of great proportions. So either we become more self-possessed and free, or we spend two hours watching Sheen clips and tell ourselves, “I wish I was more self-possessed and free.”

Then again, cultivating self-possession is hard. What makes it easier, though, is when we have a clearer idea of what we are doing it for. We are doing it for the sake of higher pleasures, more beautiful experiences. Incidentally, New Media can provide many of these higher pleasures and more beautiful experiences if we know where to look—and if we cultivate just a little more patience than usual. So if you are finding it hard to escape the seductions of YouTube and Hulu during your yearly Lenten spiritual rehabilitation, you should try redirecting your captured gaze at one of these marvels.

“Ash Wednesday,” by T.S. Eliot. Immediately, I cheat. This is a poem, not a video or a song or anything intrinsically related to the new media. Yet a quick Google search will turn up many copies of the poem. (Make sure you get one from a reputable site.) The poem is a meditation on renewal: “Because I do not hope to turn again,” the poem begins, somewhat ironically. We do hope to turn again, we always do, but part of the turning involves turning away from certain things. Eliot himself wrote the poem after the axial years of his life when, in 1927, after having cultivated a reputation as the high modernist decrier of the decline and fall of western civilization (this is what “The Waste Land” is partially about), he entered into the Anglican Church and into a new horizon of things to hope for. The speaker in the first section of “Ash Wednesday” begins and ends with a prayer which seems more pertinent now than ever before: “Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still.”

The Magician, Directed by Ingmar Bergman. This is an underrated classic from the legendary Swedish director famous for making many films which grappled with deep questions. What makes The Magician unique among his more famous films (like The Seventh Seal, Through a Glass Darkly, and Winter Light, all of which are not to be missed) is that for once Bergman’s characters are not facing empty suffering and asking “Why?” but instead actually behold a mysterious, possibly supernatural presence, and ask, “Who are you?” The presence is that of Albert Vogler, the mute and suffering magician played masterfully by Max von Sydow. Vogler travels with a troupe of performers from town to town in 19th century Sweden. One day they are received into a governor’s mansion, where they encounter a group of haughty bourgeois Enlightenment skeptics, bent not only on exposing their “lies,” but humiliating and exploiting them. But it’s the skeptics who will be humiliated, their certainties cast into doubt. The Magician is available on the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection channel ( Subscriptions cost $7.99 per month).

Quartet for the End of Time, Olivier Messiaen. Composed in a Nazi prison camp in the south of France, this piece of music premiered before an audience of prisoners, guards, and party officials, and served for them the same function that ashes do for the rest of us on Ash Wednesday: a reminder of mortality and the passage JohnTheBaptist of time. But “end” is not a univocal term: end can also mean purpose, and time has a purpose, for Messiaen. Messiaen’s piece is a meditation on the relationship between time and eternity, but he doesn’t necessarily go into loft levels of abstraction—he was inspired, for example, by birdsong, and many pieces he wrote imitate it. A few recordings and performances of this piece are available on YouTube. See if you can get the recording conducted by Karajan. (If you are a Radiohead fan, compare the fifth movement, “Louange À l'Eternité De Jésus,” with “Pyramid Song.” Guitarist Jonny Greenwood is a fan.) Whatever you think about his interview style, Charlie Rose’s website is a treasure trove of interviews with scientists, writers, entertainers, politicians, dictators, ballerinas, and religious leaders. Explore it. Spend some time on Rose’s Christmas interview with Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, Reynolds Price, and Gardner Taylor. Big Think ( is similarly stocked with interesting interviews, sans a celebrity interviewer.

Google Maps. I cheat again. Use it to find out how to get to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in midtown Kansas City. Stand before Rodin’s enormous sculpture of Adam in the Sculpture Hall. Contemplate.

Santiago Ramos is currently pursuing doctoral studies in philosophy at Boston College. He has written for First Things, Image Journal, Commonweal and the Pitch.


Top – Scene from The Magician
Bottom – It’s not Rodin’s Adam, but it is also housed at the Nelson Atkins Museum. John the Baptist – Caravaggio, c. 1604. If you’d like to know the history of this painting and why it’s in Kansas City, see our Bishop Emeritus Raymond Boland’s article on Kansas City’s Caravaggio.