All posts by Avellina Balestri

Robin Hood “telling his beads”: A Catholic reflection on the prince of thieves

The legends of Robin Hood and his Merry Men exert a near universal appeal, and have done so for generations. From ballads to books to films, the daring rebel spirit of the Prince of Thieves who, over the course of many mythological transformations, came to be seen as a champion for the common people under an oppressive regime continues to inspire us to stand up for justice in our daily lives. As a figure of myth, he is most likely an amalgamation of more than one person, but his single image casts a long shadow over our cultural imaginations.

For Catholics, he should have an additional significance, for his legend unfolded in an England worlds away which was still within the fold of a united Christendom that acknowledged the spiritual supremacy of the Pope as Vicar of Christ and Keeper of the Keys. As such, his growing legend contains many fascinating religious elements, from its first inception to its latest incarnation, and is in many ways a part of our Catholic cultural and spiritual heritage.

Robin Hood, although an outlaw bandit, has often been portrayed as not simply a nominal Catholic but also a fairly pious religious observer. In spite of the fact that he was not above robbing and making fun of pompous and unscrupulous clergymen, in what could be called a response to the temporal corruption that had infected the Church hierarchy, he is not unlike the figure of Hereward the Wake, the Saxon resistance fighter who often tangled with the Norman aristocracy/clergy but still maintained his own religious practice.

In one story, Robin Hood is shown as risking capture in order to attend mass in Nottingham in opposition to the warnings raised by his men, which nearly ends with his instant execution by the sheriff’s soldiers. He is also noted for refusing to be disturbed while in prayer, even when danger was imminent. This brings to mind St. Thomas More, who refused to be interrupted at mass, even for the summons of the king.

Clearly, at least in later legendary developments, Robin Hood views his role as something of a crusader for justice on a local level, and this influences his behavioral norms and the role of prayer in his life. Death is a common companion stalking him, and he takes memento mori seriously. Famously, Robin recruited Friar Tuck, a rough-around-the-edges but true-hearted priest, both for his renowned fighting skills and to be the outlaw band’s chaplain. Although metamorphosized for various purposes over the course of the legendary development, the friar became a central figure of spiritual consciousness in the tales.

Another important religious element found in the early ballads was Robin’s deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was originally said to be the only woman in his life. Some have related this to an earlier pagan tradition honoring “The Lady of the Wood”, given his relation to forest dwelling. Either way, this is portrayed as causing him to take special care never to harm a woman, or even a man in the company of a woman. Mary also serves as an image of purity and righteousness that embodies the cause to which Robin has dedicated himself, similar to the depiction of Our Lady making herself manifest to King Alfred in Chesterton’s “The Ballad of the White Horse.”

Interestingly, there is even a children’s nursery rhyme that depicts Robin praying the rosary in the greenwood while Little John is out on a mission to town:

Robin Hood, Robin Hood,

Is in the mickle wood!

Little John, Little John,

He to town is gone.

Robin Hood, Robin Hood,

Telling his beads,

All in the greenwood

Among the green weeds.

Little John, Little John,

If he comes no more,

Robin Hood, Robin Hood,

We shall fret full soar!

 

During the heat of the Protestant Revolt in England, many symbols of high-Church practice and cultural memory came under fire. It is speculated that this is the reason the supposed graves of King Arthur and Guinevere were dug up at Glastonbury, just as many resting places of the saints were disturbed. Not surprisingly, some records show that recusant Catholics were branded by the derogatory term “Robin Hoods” to designate them as being faithful to the old religion and outside the law.

Although the old legends endured, modifications were gradually introduced that better suited changing times. In place of the prominent role played by the Virgin Mary in Robin’s life, Maid Marian became his lady love to whom he plighted his troth. Like Friar Tuck, her development took on many forms in different variations. However, judging by her name and her own eventual status as a pure symbol of devotion, one wonders if, similar to the naming of the state of Maryland, the character carried over some of the original Marian elements.

Robin Hood, in his current form, continues to symbolize the fighting spirit of a small island in the entirety of his legacy. He fought with his longbow, the symbol of British pride and resistance, and prayed with his Rosary Beads, the symbol of the faith of the people and the refusal to let it die. Indeed, it was the sacrifice of the Catholic “Robin Hood” Recusants that kept the spark of Catholicism from being completely smothered by the turbulent winds of the times. To this day, there are Catholic men and women from the Northern England who can trace back their lineage back in an unbroken line of faithful Catholics. It is their story that best exemplifies the true spirit of Robin Hood.

 

 

A Hallowed Eve: The Spiritual and Cultural Traditions of Halloween

Halloween has always been a complicated holiday, laced together with many threads of different spiritual traditions and cultural customs. It has always stirred up controversy, morphing into an excuse for mischief and mayhem and a celebration of ghoulishness which has led some to boycott it altogether. But perhaps this is a hasty decision, which fails to take into account the whole picture of the historical development of the day and what it tells us about the richly complex human search for the meaning of life, death, and eternity.

In the ancient Pagan world, there were a variety of autumnal festivals dedicated to one deity or another and celebrating the coming in of the harvest. Half way between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, the Celts would celebrate their “new year” at Samhain (“Summer’s End”), which marked the third and final phase of their harvest season with the gathering of nuts and berries and the slaughtering of livestock that could not be fed through the winter. It was a time of plenty and abundance, merry-making and story-telling. One legend commonly associated with this time of year was that of Mongfield, a legendary sorceress-queen who was said to have married the King of Tara in ancient Irish mythology.

However, on the other end of the spectrum of festivity, there was the threat of the coming winter and the constant struggle for survival it would bring. With this ominous reality hanging over the people, Samhain became a time of soul-searching and intention-seeking, as Druids took part in various divination and scrying rituals and attempted to tell the future and predict the outcome of the year. Bonfires were also an important part of the celebration, being identified with protective and cleansing powers, as well as the ability to ward off the cold and darkness of winter. Also, they served as a point of communal gathering and the sacrifice of a portion of crops and livestock to the gods, both in thanksgiving for the harvest and to seek their favor in the months to come. No fire was allowed to be lit during Samhain until the ceremonial bonfire was lit by the Druids at a designated hill which they held sacred.

As a deeply mystical people who intently focused on the workings of nature, the Celts ascribed a spiritual element to the shifting of the seasons which their calendar was centered upon. In the waning days of autumn, darkness lengthened, the leaves fell, and foliage withered. The world seemed to be dying, and yet the Celts found comfort in the knowledge that the Wheel of the Year would continue to turn and spring would come back again. With all these thoughts about death and afterlife on their minds, they believed that in October the veil between the mortal and spirit worlds grew thin, just as the air felt crisp and thin.

This concept of an otherworldly portal nurtured the belief that the spirits of the dead, gnomes, faeries, and other mythical creatures might visit the living on Samhain. Hence people would leave out food for any spirit visitors who might show up and special bread was baked on Samhain for the occasion, often using the symbolically significant ingredients of rye, caraway, rosemary, and buttermilk. At the feast, a place would be left empty for any ancestors who might wish to visit and break bread with them. Later, the bread would be given to those less fortunate. Visits would also be made to the burial mounds of dead relatives and friends and bring symbolic offerings to leave there such as apples (symbols of eternity) and nuts (symbols of wisdom).

In addition to visiting spirits, it was also a day of departing spirits. Since the Celts believed that the souls of the dead did not immediately leave earth, it was thought that those who had died within that year were finally rounded up by the Lord of Death on Samhain night, beckoning them with a horn blast to prepare to make their journey to the Otherworld.  Tradition held that the “new day” really began at dusk, so the night time celebrations had special significance and brought to the fore a sacred animal: bats. Because of their ability to fly at night, and because they were considered to be “in between” the bird and mammal families, they were considered to be perfect messengers to deceased loved ones in the world beyond. Their presence around ceremonial fires, drawn by the abundance of tasty flying insects, associated them with the season as well.

When Christianity spread across Europe and came to the Celtic peoples through St. Patrick and others, the traditions associated with Samhain showed no signs of abating. Celtic Christianity always had a distinct flare for bringing out the best in old and new and taking the mysticism and deep respect for nature found in Druidic society and applying it to Christ, High King of the Universe. Since there were many things perfectly compatible with Christian teaching within the celebration of Samhain the Church incorporated them into the celebration of All Hallow’s Eve, or Hallowe’en on October 31, which served as a Vigil celebration of All Saints Day on November 1.

Christians too shared a deep regard for deceased souls and the honor of those who had gone ahead into the next world. However, instead of the Pagan belief that souls wandered the earth after death, Christians believed in Purgatory, a “waiting place” where souls were purged of their imperfections before entering Heaven. Prayers offered lovingly for the deceased would go towards the purification process and enable them to reach Heaven sooner. Aside from this, meditating on death, in and of itself, was considered to be healthy for spiritual development. After all, it assured that human beings would never forget their mortality or come to think of themselves as gods, and would serve to keep their focus on the Divine and the world to come.

Samhain bread would be turned into “soul cakes”, made with a variety of ingredients and in various designs. Both the doughnut and the pretzel are said to have been forms of soul cake, the former representing the circle of eternity and the latter representing praying hands. People who continue the traditional Pagan custom as “mummers” going house to house singing particular verses and requesting the tasty cakes and alcoholic beverages. While the ceremonies varied across Christendom, a typical rhyme ran something like this:

 

A soul, a soul, a soul for a soul cake

Come save a soul for a soul cake

One for Peter and two for Paul

And Three for the One who made us all

 

Now this seriously simplified the spiritual significance of the evening, but the idea was that before a soul cake could be given out, the “mummers” had to say prayers for the deceased family members of the house they were visiting. Meanwhile, special vigils would be held at cemeteries and within monasteries to offer prayers for the deceased. They would continue on through All Saints Day on November 1, celebrating the triumph of the saints and martyrs spending eternity in the presence of God, and All Souls Day on November 2, again to focus on the souls in Purgatory.

Again, old traditions from Paganism remained a major part of All Hallows, including the concept of the dead making visits to the living. People would dress up to scare off or befuddle any evil spirits who might make appearances, and also came to consider the veil-thinning time as something of an excuse to turn the world upside down. It was a day when darkness was coming in, and people believed they could show their dark sides as well. Most of the time, this was in the form of pranks and mischief-making, but nothing terribly harmful or serious.

However, during the Protestant Reformation in the British Isles, Catholics were targeted by Protestant rabble-rousers for celebrating the triple feasts of All Hallows, All Saints, and All Souls, and often were tormented by mobs and gangs in the streets who accused them of celebrating “Pagan Practices”. The close proximity to Guy Fawkes’ Day on November 5, which celebrated the failure of a Catholic plot to blow up King James I and his parliament, did not help matters. Bonfires would be lit, Guy Fawkes and the pope would be burned in effigy, and no Catholic was safe to venture outside for fear of his life. But for Protestants in England it was, and remains, a festive occasion, complete with special potatoes to eat and fireworks to explode.

In conclusion there are many links with the modern secular celebration of Halloween and the traditional spiritual traditions of both Pagans and Christians. Unfortunately, I’m afraid much of the meditative reflection on the eternal has been drained in favor of an excessive display of plastic pumpkins, glittery witches, and electric flying bats. But worse is the excessive trend towards gruesomeness and gore. While I can certainly understand the gray areas of life, and acknowledging our own complex human natures (which some have called “the dance between light and dark”), perhaps there is something unhealthy about allowing oneself too heavy a dose of the macabre, especially if it is for its own sake, and not directed towards some higher good such as soul-searching about the meanings of existence and the essence of humanity.

As a Catholic, I can enjoy multiple aspects of the season, from both Pagan and Christian spiritual and cultural traditions. I can appreciate the turning Wheel of the Year, and reflect on the cycle of life, death, and rejuvenation that gives us hope for an afterlife. I can think upon the mortality of myself and others, and how we should focus on both living well and dying well in light of our eternal destiny. I can munch on doughnuts and pretzels, and make prayer vigils for the souls of the departed so that my love might reach them should they be in the “waiting place”, and thus be purged and enter the presence of the Divine. I might follow the path of the Celtic saints and find a special place in nature where the veil between the natural and the supernatural feels thinnest, and time seems transparent, and one can meditate upon the things of Heaven with the greatest clarity. And there, in the crisp stillness of autumn and hallowed gathering of darkness, I may recite a Celtic prayer such as this:

May God bless all the company of souls here

May God and Mary bless you

You too were here, as we are now

And we hope to join you soon

May we all be adorned in the Bright King of Heaven

 

Hidden Queen

Look into the poorest eyes
And find the hidden queen
The pool of gracious light reveals
The depth of the Red Sea
And she will lead us through the waves,
The first upon dry ground

Find the highly favored one,
Work-chafed, oppression’s child,
Whose people felt the stinging lash
Yet heard the Word of God
And she has heard His whisper rise
On the harshness of the wind

Humble as the lowly earth
Noble as the sacred stars
Find in her the hymn of grace
And the ancient battle-cry
The Enemy is slain by her
For the keenest sword is pure

Vessel of the Breath of God
Dew of manna’s morn,
More uproarious than the quake
That brought down Jericho
The mighty have their overthrow
Through a fragile desert flower

Her soul becomes the mirror glass
Reflecting Lord of Hosts
Her voice, the harp of David’s psalms
A royal treasure shared
Fairest of the human race,
Bear the Saving Fruit!

Dove of peace and healing hand,
Light our candles tall
For long’s the night of wanderers
And you must guide us home
Find us, daughter of the dawn,
Guide us to the Light!

Where your treasure lies: A spiritual reflection on an election year

This election cycle, Catholic Americans are presented with the hair-raising choice between Hillary Clinton, a woman whose corrupt record and virulent support for the Catholic five non-negotiables (including restriction-free abortion up to the day of birth) is infamous, and Donald Trump, a man whose crude speech, narcissistic behavior, and generally unchristian and unstable attitude make many shudder to pull the lever in his favor. Being unable to read the future, it is difficult for many of these voters to decide with certainly which one of these individuals will be “the lesser of two evils”.
If Hillary Clinton becomes president, we will most likely see an expansion of the abortion industry, as life-protecting safeguards and clauses are shot down and more innocent pre-born babies who would otherwise have been spared are torn limb from limb, even moments before they would have come into the world and, finally, come under the protection of the law to uphold their right to life. We will also see increased pressure placed on religious institutions to affirm the validity of and perform ceremonies for same-sex “marriages”, as well as provide or pay for contraceptives and abortifacients. Other concerns include Clinton’s past scandals with regards to potential national security breaches, subsequent cover-ups, and mishandling of Clinton Foundation Funds.
On the other hand, if Donald Trump becomes president, many fear that his impulsive self-interest and reactionary temperament may pose a different kind of threat to international stability and security. Taking in the rhetoric used in his speeches, there is concern that hard-line measurements will be taken against the most vulnerable in the Hispanic and Islamic communities, especially refugees and migrants, which could increase mutual hostility and racism and add fuel to the fires of global terrorism. Also, some feel that a harsh “law and order” stance, if not properly tempered by fairness and reform, may escalate issues with potential police brutality and “race riots”, not to mention the rather distressing vision of marital law being mandated by a pseudo-dictator.
As one commentator pointed out, while Clinton may have a capacity for lying, cheating, and stealing, she still manages to handle herself with a certain degree of slippery skill and lawyer-like suave. She clearly knows the system, and knows how to the play within its barriers. Trump, on the other hand, while emphasizing the building of walls as part of his policy, seems to recognize few of them in his personal comportment. He often flaunts himself like a rich schoolyard bully or a mobster boss, bribing and threatening with shameless openness, and proclaiming his (evidently latent) sex appeal, superior genes, and exorbitant wealth to a grotesque degree. It might be said that he wears on his sleeve what most politicians prefer to hide in the closet. But the fact that he seems thoroughly unabashed is a cause for concern in itself.
His cringe-worthy attempts to court Christian voters do nothing to change this reality. For Catholics, watching him praising Mother Teresa’s humility was a sight for really, really sore eyes. At the same time, Catholics find themselves in a difficult position, as we are bound to vote for candidates whose platforms are closest to our positions on the non-negotiables. That is why so many Catholics who had previously been Democrat for generations found it necessary, albeit potentially distasteful, to migrate to the Republican Party. Courtesy of the two-party system, they simply had nowhere else substantial to turn. Trump, for all his faults, is running on a pro-life (at least where abortion is concerned) ticket, and with Supreme Court justice appointments up for grabs, the stakes are high.
But this year has seen a pendulum swing of Catholics caught between two currents, struggling to swim upstream while still satisfying their consciences. For many, neither choice is a conscionable one, and they will wind up voting third party or utilizing the write-in ballot. Others will meander back to the Democrats, under the premise that they have something of an automatic dispensation due to what they perceive to be a dangerous level of incompetence on the part of the Republican candidate. Still others will hold their noses and vote the Trump ticket, hoping and praying that his side-kicks can keep him in line lest all Armageddon break lose over an insult to his hair-style!
But for all of us, this is a waiting game, and the drawn-out contest can easily cause an epidemic of political sea-sickness. Either way it goes, I have a feeling most Catholics will simultaneously breathe a sigh of relief that it wasn’t the one, and release a groan of anguish that it was the other. It’s really a rather helpless feeling to know things have gotten this bad, and there’s nothing immediate we can do to fix it. Frankly, I think it’s about time we had an alternative party to choose from which was pro-life across the board in accordance with Catholic social teaching, even if it takes a while to get off the ground. But alas and alack, it has not happened as of yet.
So…what are we supposed to do for the time being (other than clutch a teddy bear and dive under a fuzzy blanket until it’s all over)? As Catholics, maybe this is all an opportunity for us to appreciate that this world is not our real home, and we are always in the hands of Divine Providence. God knows better than we do how to handle this situation, and all others for that matter, and I personally find myself praying that He will do just that as opposed to sending up partisan intentions based on my own inadequate summations. Meanwhile, perhaps it is time to take a cue from the lives of the saints.
In the month of October, we celebrate the feasts of both St. Therese of Liseux and St. Francis of Assisi. The former is remembered best for her “Little Way” of living the life of grace through everyday acts of self-sacrificial love, and the latter for his embrace of “Lady Poverty” and communion with all the elements of creation as his brothers and sisters. These two role models of the devout life stand out as the antithesis of what our culture tells us we need for our salvation. When we transform public servants into demigods, we have truly turned the world upside down from its natural order. When people proclaim “In Trump We Trust” as the new motto of a populist revolution, but rail against Pope Francis for washing the feet of a Muslim refugee woman clutching a baby in her arms on Holy Thursday, are eyes have grown scales that must be cleansed away before we can hope to see the Face of God.
But these saints of October are particularly beloved because they radiated the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity through an embrace of humility, simplicity, and a respect for all life in their daily lives. They changed the world by allowing the Sacred Heart to beat in their own hearts, helping them to recognize every stage and condition of life as being singularly precious, brought forth and sustained by the Threefold Maker of Wonders. This is particularly appropriate, since October is also the month of Respect Life Sunday, a pro-life initiative which, in its proper context, should not be seen as exclusively dealing with the plight of the unborn.
The Catholic understanding of respecting life is just as much talking about the desperate migrant and the fleeing refugee and the frightened unwed mother. It is talking about the neglected elderly and the taunted disabled and the condemned imprisoned. It is talking about the sufferers of abuse and war, the addicts and drunks and prostitutes stumbling through a haze and selling themselves cheap, the isolated and abandoned of every walk of life. Yes, it is talking about the homosexual and transgender members of our community who need the love of Christ in their lives as much as anyone else. It is about you and me, and even those who despise us and wish us ill.
Last but not least, it is about those candidates we find so repugnant to our sensibilities. We must not allow this distaste for their policies and behaviors to turn into hatred for their personhood. They are immortal souls, just as we are, and we are integrally bound up with them. Christ shed His blood just as much for them as for us. If we cannot manage to look into their eyes and see past the façade to the core of their beings, we should spend more time reconciling ourselves to our own reflections in the mirror. We must ask: does it reflect the image of Christ as it should?
Heroism has been called “the glorious triumph of the spirit over the flesh.” Perhaps that also could be used as a description for holiness, although I would prefer say it restores our flesh to the way it is supposed to be, working in harmony with the spirit, as opposed a war between body and soul. This can only be achieved by a continual response to grace offered to us. Like Therese and Francis, we must remember that every seemingly insignificant act has eternal ramifications and defines our identities and destinies. We live in this world to grow closer to God and to one another in love. We must always be mindful of this universal call.
The eyes of love must see through race, color, creed, and lifestyle choices. We may heartily disagree with those choices, but never cease to see the worth that rests at the center of the free will, and recognize the soul made in the divine image, from the moment of conception to natural death. This is the heart of the Catholic teaching. It has been said that we are a religion of romantics; we believe in true love, and transformative love, in our own lives, our communities, our country, and the world.
We are all sinners, and yet we know that while hating sin, we must love ourselves and every other person as Christ loves us, even to the point of suffocating on a tree. It is not an easy road of dragging our small wooden crosses, of reaching out beyond our comfort zones and engaging a culture too often courting the ways of indifference and death in the name of the God of Life, and telling it to throw down its crutches and walk. But nothing worthwhile has ever had an easy-fix solution attached. We may find ourselves sweating blood by the end of the day, but it will bring forth lasting fruits in the garden beyond all ages.
So this election year, I call upon all my fellow Catholics, and fellow American citizens as a whole, to renew your commitment to overcome evil with good on a daily basis. Give yourself over to the work at hand of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth in the hearts of all you encounter. Instead of indulging in the political bear-baiting like a gladiatorial sport, turn your mind to higher things. Store up your treasures in Heaven, for where your treasure lies, there also lies your heart, and no vote can ever take that away.

A Bard’s Prayer

Let me catch the flame

Golden, glittering, glaring

So my fingers may glow as I hold the pen

Let me taste the wine

Sweet, smooth, sumptuous

So my speech may be seasoned when I tell the tale

 

Let me smooth the cloth

Crumpled, crude, queer-colored,

So beauty and grace may greet each eye

Let me weave with thread

Silver, star-lit, spider-spun

So my words may flow like a moon-kissed stream

 

Let me glimpse the ghosts

Fast-footed, fair-faced, fleeting

So my blessing may reach them as eyes meet eyes

Let me climb the chain

Twinkling, taught, tenacious

That connects the present with the haunted past

 

Let my arrow fly

Straight-shot, shimmering, shocking

To cleave each heart for the sake of truth

Let my harp strings sound

Merry, moaning, murmuring

So all may partake in the moods of life

 

Let me feel the drum

Pulsing, pounding, puncturing

So my voice may serve as a battle-horn

Let my cry be heard

Ringing, roaring, raging

Above the din of battle and through the soul

 

Let me harvest jewels

Unicorn-horns, sword-hilts, Christ’s hem

And lay them out in story and song

Let it so be done

Soulfully, sacrificially, sanctifyingly

So that life may infuse death-darkened eyes

 

For the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek: A Spiritual Reflection

Enterprise, what a God-haunted mission you are on. All around you there is light, star-shot and splintered in the endless skies through which you journey. And yet you cannot grasp the Light from which all else proceeds, catching only fleeting glimpses in your own souls and the countless souls of those you encounter in the seemingly endless multiverse of unknown magnitude.

In a future world, where humanity has perfected travel through space and time, when they have grown in leaps and bounds of technical advancement, you are still not so very far from us. Stories transcend time and space, after all. Your joys and sorrows, triumphs and very human failings burn themselves into our hearts, and we become family to you. We can relate to you. Some things never change for sentient beings exploring their own natures, origins, and abilities.

Those who are “the most human”, whether truly human or not, are worth more than all the stars that flare up and are snuffed out in a twinkling, for within them is a depth which cannot be plumbed or emptied out like crystalline water gushing from a shattered vase. You know that, for love needs no education, no explanation, no pre-conditioning. It is felt and known, and when the outer crust of a friend’s body is broken, it burns inside you with a radiating heat. It defies all your logic and the vastness of mystery, and you ask the sky where he has gone.

You are searching for the common thread that holds the cosmos in place, for there is infinite diversity, infinite combinations, and yet you seek to find that element of unity that twines the sticks into a bundle and makes them nearly impossible to break. For all reality, no matter at what star-point you may hover, or in what dimension you find yourselves drifting, is integrally linked in a way that is left unspoken and yet permeates the concept of your Federation. There is a common ground shared by all, and a common ethic that encompasses the whole.

You are destined to uphold an inquiry shadowing a reality which cannot be grasped by the senses or measured by scientific instruments. And yet you know of the careful balance between order and freedom, loyalty and logic, the cause and the people behind it. You know that reality must be such-and-such a thing, lest it defy belief, and that the essence of beings are so much more than flesh and blood and bone and the crinkled tissue of the brain.

You face up to many false gods, and knock them from their pedestals as the fading fancies that they are. You are sickened by the use of religion for cruelty, tyranny, and hypocrisy, despising pride’s ugly head, the serpent with a forked tongue. And there are many gods that glitter in the many worlds in which you sojourn, and their gilded glamor and petty pretenses crumble to dust. But you will not be taken in by their charms. In thrusting aside all that is untrue, perhaps you are drawing closer to that Truth which you chase…and which chases you.

I tell you, you are not far off as you might think. Some people say that humanity has “outgrown” the concept of God that has been shoved at them in reckless youth, of a small-minded autocrat perched in the clouds somewhere, trying to control us and extract our worship by force. Such a concept, I would heartily agree, needs to be outgrown. But this is not the God to which I pray, nor the restless gnawing that sends you hurtling through your self-made purgatories, climbing a series of endless man-made ladders that never reach the clouds.

To outgrow my concept of God, you would have to outgrow everything of worth and beauty and meaning and order and wonder and understanding and revelation. You would have to outgrow nature and science, love and sacrifice, mathematics and history, memory and speech, the mind and heart. You would have to outgrow growth itself, and their own inner essence. For my God is the Source of and Presence in all these things…to outgrow this God would be to have the soul shrivel into dust, and only carry on living because there is nothing worth dying for. That would be a frightening finality for the ideals of the Federation indeed.

No, Enterprise, by all you have shown and shared with us, you have proven that you are not so very far from finding the Soul of Stars. Go now, go boldly where many have gone before, and yet never in the exact same way. For every mortal’s trek takes different turns, and yet there is a common compass turning within. Our hearts are restless until our rest is found in that single greatest discovery. No greater mission has ever been launched.

The West Wind Comes Walking

 

The little ones…the little ones were in danger…

Boromir, still on his knees, clutches at the dead leaves around him, his thoughts turning from his desperation to claim the Ring for his father’s kingdom to his desperation to save his smallest friends from death. He doubts that the hobbits had even seen death by hand-to-hand combat before. Their eyes have not yet been seared by the sight of blood, as his own had been. He shivers with an unearthly resolve as he draws out his sword, and the sun’s blessing falls upon it with the kiss of blazing rays.

The shine of gold…the story of his life…

He had felt the lust for the power-melted gold of the One Ring, inscribed with the black tongue of Mordor, as strong a pull as he had experienced on the mountainside when it had fallen, glistening in the pristine snows, and he had picked it up with his gloved hand. It had swung on its chain in front of his face, hypnotic in its pendulum motion, and he had mused how the fate of all lands could hinge upon so simple a thing. But simple things are always the most important.

As the favored son of the Steward of Gondor, he was used to the great and the grand, the adulation of his people who hailed him as their savior, of the West Wind whipping against the standards of the White Tree, of the trumpets blaring, brave and boisterous, across the plains strewn with enemy dead. He was born in the gold of dawn, trained to seize the day, and lead his countrymen to greatness once more. Sight and sound, and the songs of throngs, carried out by the strong current of ocean gale.

Yet beginning his journey with the Fellowship of the Ring, he had found himself loving things quite foreign to him. Though always respected and popular among his fellow officers and men, raised by his father on a dizzyingly high pedestal, and genuinely loved by his ill-treated brother Faramir, more basic forms of friendship had often eluded him. But then he had found a new brotherhood among new friends. There was the quiet strength of Aragorn, and the elvish wisdom of Legolas; there was the jovial gruffness of Gimli, and the simple devotion of the hobbits.

Ah, the hobbits. Boromir had never known the joys of their Shire, bursting with a love of life beneath a tranquil sky. But just being in their company had made him imagine the taste of their summer strawberries and nut-brown ale, imagine the vegetables and wildflowers growing under a smiling sun, and feel the natural pleasure of tilling the soil and making life spring forth. Simple country folk, these hobbits were, who worked hard and played hard in the springtime of their youth. They squabbled, but always made up; and in a scrape from the outside, none could stand between them. There was no guile in them, no false display, but purest honesty and selfless courage.

And they had trusted Boromir. His heart ached at how they had trusted him! Merry and Pippin in particular, the mischievous cousins who he had taught to hold a sword, and who had played with him in the snow. But for the gold, he had almost betrayed them all. For that simple band contained within it the circle of all power, an energy that was the rise and fall of the kingdoms of the world. He wanted it only for good, to please his father and make the White City rise from the ashes of neglect. But he knew, even by the pin-prick of desire in his own soul, something more insidious was at work. The Eye of Sauron watched, and waited, and bided its time for Boromir’s own weakness to turn to the service of the Dark Lord.

But now the sun is on his sword, drawn not at the head of his advancing troops, but alone in the tangled underbrush of the wilderness, outnumbered by an ambush party, setting upon his smallest friends. Surely no one will sing of such a vain attempt at valor, no one will herald him in streets flowing with wine, and Gondor, the Land of his Fathers, will be left without a hero. But this thing, this burning thing of power, pierces through his heart like a flaming arrow. It is something too deep for words or explanations, just as the deepest lake lies silent in its immensity. It is the power that only love can birth.

Blade swings, singing the song of ages, the song of passing from one realm to the next, the song of pulsing blood overflowing. Is it an anthem, a dirge, or a lullaby? Boromir knows not, for the song is part of his own movements, his own war horn’s note, gushing from his parched lips…

Thwak. The song of death. Thwak. Thwak.

Has there ever been such an ache? Has the whistle of shafts ever wounded so deeply? Borne on the wind, flying like the birds, singing their own severing songs, with beaks thirsting for heart’s blood…and still, he fights on, crying out for his friends to flee, swinging his arm though it grows numb as a dead branch. He cries out for the little ones to run…

Thwak. Thwak.

The arrows stick out from his back, his chest, struck deep into mortal fragility of flesh, with the darts splintering white bones. Blood replaces the war-cry, gushing forth from muted lips…

On his knees again he falls, hope fading as the hobbits rush in upon the orc attackers, to save their savior who is now beyond all saving, and are carried away…and all else fades away…

What passing dreams settle over the broken body and shattered soul, of all the things that will never be more? The embrace of loved ones never to be felt again, of his father and brother and a city that sparkled in his eyes…of things that never were, but would have been…a wife’s comforting strength and children’s innocence…for he had always loved children… loved the thought of playing with his children, and teaching his son to hold a sword, and touch the softness of his daughter’s hair…

And then there is the touch of a brother upon his shoulders. It is Aragorn, the Ranger of the North, raised among the elves and hiding within his breast a royal burden. Boromir had once mocked the claims of this exile stranger before the Council of Elrond, telling him that Gondor needed no king. But now his heart feels coiled like a snake at the sight of his dark, sad eyes.

“They took the little ones,” the felled warrior spits out, and the snake’s fangs bite through his heart, as the arrow tips bite through his lungs.

“Lie still,” Aragorn commands, his words gentle yet firm. There is something in him, something that is meant to command and to be obeyed.

“Where is Frodo?” Boromir pleads for an answer, fear gripping him.

“I let him go.” The response is simple, yet more meaningful than other response could be. Aragorn had not fallen prey to his inner fear of weakness in the blood, nor the memory of his ancestor-king who stole the Ring for himself, and plunged the realm into darkness and dread. No, no…he had let it go…

“Then you did what I could not do,” Boromir whispers, squeezing his friend’s shoulder. “I tried to take the ring from him.”

Aragorn shakes his head softly, but there is no condemnation in it, only acknowledgement of the creeping evil that Sauron wields. “The Ring is beyond our reach now.”

“Forgive me…I did not see…I have failed you all…”

“No, you haven’t,” Aragorn assures, and there is a depth of understanding and humility in him Boromir never expected. “You fought bravely, and kept your honor.” He goes to reach for the closest arrow protruding from his friend’s chest with the intent of removing it.

“Leave it,” Boromir gasps, overcome with the pain. “It is over…the world of men will fall…and all will come to darkness, and Minis Tirith to ruin…”

Aragorn strokes the back of the dying man’s neck, trying to calm him through both their tears. “I do not know what strength is in my blood,” he begins, struggling to come to terms with the legacy of his predecessor, “But I swear to you: I will not let the White City fall…” He pauses, then adds in reclamation of his heritage and their common bond, “Nor our people fail.”

“Our people…” Boromir murmurs, suppressing a sob of joy rising in his throat. “Our people…” Tremulously he tries to grasp his sword hilt, and Aragorn clasps his hand around it and brings it to his chest. He will die as he has lived, a warrior with his sword of honor braced like a shield over his weakening heart.

Boromir is struggling for the breath of life now; it sticks in his throat, thick with saliva and blood. Each gasp brings fresh pain. The death sickness is on him, stealing him away, as a purple river trickles from his gaping wounds. But he must get out the words…must get out…words…

“I would have followed you, my brother…”

He squeezes Aragorn’s arm, and feels the pressure in response. Oh, to feel…to feel a brother’s love…just a little longer…

“My captain…”

The blood is on his tongue, the mist spreading over his eyes.

“My King…”

Breath leaves softly, silently, with the rustle of leaves, and the gift of sleep is his.

Aragorn’s healing hand blesses his sightless eyes. Gazing upon his face, he whispers, “Be at peace…Son of Gondor.” And then, with brotherly tenderness, he places a kiss on his forehead.

Later, as the sun descends over the backdrop of mountain and river, Aragorn stands upon the bank, watching Boromir’s boat being carried by the current to the shore of bones, with his warrior’s horn at his side. May it be you travel beneath the evening star, he prays in silence, observing the first light of the dark glittering in the heavens. May you see all turned to silver glass, and bide well till we meet again.

Gondor’s sun had set, and yet a new dawn was coming. Boromir had no song from the throngs…but his brother, his king would weave him one in a voice deep as the ocean, on the breath of a golden wind…

“Through Rohan over fen and field where the long grass grows

The West Wind comes walking, and about the walls it goes.

‘What news from the West, O wandering wind, do you bring to me tonight?

Have you seen Boromir the Tall by moon or by starlight…?

 ‘Neath Amon Hen I heard his cry. There many foes he fought,

His cloven shield, his broken sword, they to the water brought.

His head so proud, his face so fair, his limbs they laid to rest,

And Rauros, golden Rauros-falls, bore him upon its breast.

‘O Boromir! The Tower of Guard shall ever northward gaze,

To Rauros, golden Rauros-falls, until the end of days.’”

Faith Flicks: Sources of Inspiration or Despair?

It seems that there is something stirring in the movie-making business as of late. Namely, religious themes are reappearing on the radar in a more positive light to appease the niche counter-cultural audience that has proven it still carries some clout at the ticket booth. Even if it’s just a matter of throwing them a bone for cash rewards, the effects are still perceivable in the long view from the bleachers.

As a Catholic Christian myself, I would be inclined to welcome this return of religious flicks in theory. However, this inclination has been somewhat stymied by many of the end results of this faith-filled splurge. I often find myself adding to the litany of prayer: “From the scourge of Christian independent productions, deliver thy people, O Lord!”

Instead of telling full-bodied, life-like stories with multi-faceted characters and thought-provoking themes, the well-intentioned debacles settle for predictably preachy plot-lines, cardboard cut-out characters who fill stereotypical roles, and cereal box scripts, promising the synthetic prize of a happy-clappy finale as indigestible as too many bowls of Fruit Loops. These exhibitions could serve no better purpose than turning off the rest of the world to religious people in general (to which this religious person responds in her defense…*face palm*).

Some of the worst examples of this include God’s Not DeadFireproof, and Heaven Is For Real. Beyond this, there are even some major motion pictures that have recently taken on religious themes and plummeted to the depths, such as Noah, another exercise in miscasting Russell Crowe (as if the Irish-accented Robin Hood and tone-deaf Javert weren’t bad enough!), including such delights as giant rock monsters, narcotic berry juice, and a Cockney stow-away on the ark who eats one of only two computer generated lizards!

To be fair, there are some more bearable releases with at least some elements of quality such as October Baby (at least there is some plot substance and character arc), Son of God (I don’t care overly much for the cool dude Jesus, but the Passion sequences were heart-rendingly well-done), and Mom’s Night Out (totally bonkers, but with some genuinely humorous moments and Christian characters who are not insufferable goody-two-shoes). That having been said, I don’t believe any of these sail past the mid-zone mediocre rating.

So the question remains: are we to consign ourselves to the dismal reality that all faith-flicks are doomed to be lost causes for those who are exploring the big questions of life and happen to be lovers of quality cinema? I for one vote NAE. This is because, as a classic movie buff, I have fallen in love with more than a few quality motion pictures that unflinchingly take on religious themes in a way that is both complex and universally impacting for the religious, “spiritual but not religious”, and non-religious alike.

This is a vital point, for if religiously themed films remain imprisoned in their own niche circles, it is simply a matter of redundantly preaching to the choir and doing nothing in the way of opening hearts and minds to new ideas or expanding discussions on the most important questions of life. We must look beyond the horizon in this, and break the bubble of our comfort zones to reach the outside world.

For this very reason, one of my all-time favorite films is the 1966 production A Man For All Seasons, chronicling the final years of the steadfastly Catholic Sir Thomas More who is executed for his refusal to betray his faith and conscience by acknowledging King Henry VIII as Head of the Church in England.

While this might sound like a subject in which Catholics alone would emotionally invest themselves, the screenplay was actually written by the agnostic Robert Bolt, and the audience appeal has crossed all boundaries of belief. The main reason for this is that More’s legacy of moral integrity truly does stand on its own in any age, as made clear by the title.

Also, contrary to the revisionist projection of More as a humorless and perverted prig in Wolf Hall, he had a delightfully quick wit even in the most dire of circumstances and loved to “make merry” as an active socialite and family man. Even as an imperfect man in an imperfect era of history, this warmth and humanity shines out in Sir Paul Scofield’s portrayal. We can relate to him and sympathize with his difficult position naturally, without having it being forced in our face like a proselytizing pamphlet.

The same applies to the 1943 film The Song of Bernadette, telling the story of a teenaged French peasant girl who claims to see visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Again, what we would assume to be a quintessentially Catholic endeavor was actually based off of the book by the same name written by the Jewish Franz Werfel, who had been saved from the Nazis by the Catholic citizens of Lourdes during WWII.

He managed to convey the story of Bernadette and her town with sympathy, realism, and a healthy dose of the sacramental imagination. All this was beautifully conveyed on screen with freshness and power instead of the use of sugary platitudes or sappy sentimentality. Jennifer Jones’ portrayal of Bernadette Soubirous is indeed a miracle in itself for managing to capture both the innocence and wisdom that has drawn viewers from all backgrounds to fall in love with her.

Another film of note is the 1953 murder mystery I Confess, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and revolving around Fr. Michael Logan, a Catholic priest in Quebec who finds himself framed for a murder he did not commit. In fact, he already knows who did commit the crime…because the murderer told him under the Seal of Confession!

The reason why this movie was able to cross the religious divide was because it was a genuinely good thriller with a unique plot angle, and has been called “technically one of Hitchcock’s best.” This is fascinating, because it is one of the only times the Catholic Master of Suspense dealt with a story involving his faith so directly. But even for those who found maintaining the Seal of Confession to be a strange and unreasonable expectation, Fr. Logan’s very human fear yet resolve to remain true to his vows is naturally admirable, and Montgomery Clift was able to reflect that quiet heroism to a tee.

Still on the subject of priests, the 1983 production Scarlet and the Black focuses on real-life hero Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, called “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican”, who aided refugees of every stripe (from Allied POWs to hunted Jews) to escape to neutral Vatican territory during the Nazi occupation of Rome in WWII.

You would be hard-pressed not to find something to like in “Hugh”, charming at parties, daring in underground rescue missions, biting in Irish sarcasm, and gloriously fiery in temperament with a sharp right hook. A master of disguises and genius at organization, he is also compellingly human and rough around the edges.

Just as Gregory Peck brings this role to life with zeal and panache, Christopher Plummer perfectly embodies his tormenting and tormented nemesis, Herbert Kappler, SS Security Chief of Police, whose own soul-searching forces O’Flaherty to confront his own personal demons.

Lastly, I would like to draw attention to a more recent film, the 2006 production Amazing Grace about parliamentarian William Wilberforce and his crusade to abolish the British Slave Trade in the early 19thcentury. Although Wilberforce is clearly a devout Anglican Christian and his faith is integral to his world view, one need on share his religious beliefs in order to admire his courageous stand against one of the worst evils of his day, even at the expense of his healthy and nearly his promising career.

Beyond this, his character as played by Ioann Gruffudd is not a slap-on-a-smile-and-push-a-pamphlet type. He has a depth and sincerity which reveals itself through his interaction with everyone he encounters. He is also deeply human, which is brought to the fore by the fact that he sinks into depression and near total despair when his efforts are thwarted at every turn. Yet still, with the support of his spirited wife, he is able to hang onto hope and see his cause to completion.

So in conclusion, all of these films, and many more like them, encourage me with the fact that God is not dead on screen after all. In fact, the mysteries of divine interaction with and influence through humanity can be revealed with great poignancy through stories that defy false stereotypes and leave us changed for the better through traveling the worn path of joys and sorrows with the leading characters.

In Thomas More, Bernadette Soubirous, Michael Logan, Hugh O’Flaherty, and William Wilberforce, we find a complex combination of holiness, heroism, and humanity. In fact, it can truly be said that to be holy is simply to be more fully human, as we made us to be. This is what we need more of in religious themed productions today. Indeed, perhaps through “art for art’s sake”, creating beauty for its own rewards, the message we are trying to send shines through all the clearer.

 

Winter of the Soul: A Spiritual Analysis of the Game of Thrones Pop Culture Phenomena

 

Game of Thrones, the wildly popular HBO series based off of George R.R. Martin’s high fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire, is a presently unavoidable part of popular culture. Praised for its high production values, including acting, costuming, setting, and cinematography, and dubbed one of the “epic sagas of our times”, the program has sent fantasy-lovers flocking to it in droves, in spite of (or unfortunately, perhaps because of) the fact that is also infamous for its X-rated content and nihilistic themes. As the series continues, the pros and cons of viewing continue to expand, and some have questioned whether aesthetic quality is enough to justify the intake of such high levels of graphic material and to be following plot developments that are spiraling further and further from any sense of moral direction.

Having only read analysis online and watched selected clips from YouTube (trudging through the gauntlet of gory death scenes and soft porn sequences is far from being on my to-do list!), I cannot claim to be any sort of expert on the full run of the series. Indeed, what got me interested in any exploration of the series in the first place was the fandom music of Karliene, which later led me to meet the gloriously eccentric association of hopeless romantics known as “The Sanrion Shippers” over at fanfiction.net, dedicated to salvaging the doomed marriage of Sansa Stark and Tyrion Lannister from the series. That being said, all this has enabled me to identify some of the main themes which I would like to analyze from a Christian viewer’s worldview and spiritual perspective, particularly in light of Game of Thrones being frequently compared, both positively and negatively, to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

The premise of Game of Thrones centers on a handful of noble families battling for control of the Iron Throne of Westeros against the backdrop of a pseudo-medieval setting with spranglings of magical powers and ancient prophecies thrown in for good measure. George R.R. Martin claims to have taken his main inspiration from a hodge-podge of happenings during the Middle Ages (the War of the Roses is the most obvious parallel: e.g., the family names of Lancaster/Lannister and York/Stark), but his synthetic adaptation is meant to be viewed through the lens of modern sentiment as opposed to the proper historical context. Instead of painting a full-bodied picture of the goods and the ills of the period, his world tends to portray everything “medieval” as dark and oppressive as opposed to focusing on the positive elements of its legacy. While brutality was certainly a reality of medieval society, there was also much beauty and virtue to be explored as well, especially involving the nature of the chivalric code and sacramental kingship.

Nevertheless, the plot-line, at least in its early stages, is fairly compelling and stands on its own apart from historical accounts. There is a richness of texture that makes the geographical, cultural, and political backdrop of Westeros believable and engrossing, made more so by the complex characters that are not easily labeled as either heroes or villains. This enables viewers to observe multiple sides of the conflict with a certain degree of sympathy for all parties involved. This is a direct carryover from the books, which literally do change viewpoints frequently, even when those characters are doomed to die down the road. And many are doomed to die.  Given the predictability of most other series and their hero survival policy, Martin’s almost gleeful slaying of sympathetic main characters shocked audiences with the reality that, in Westeros, no one was safe…not even the nearest and dearest of fandom central. Depending on your view-point, this could be refreshing or distressing.

Still the personality traits of the main players tend to be varied enough to make their interactions compelling and open up all sorts of possibilities for their personal development. It’s easy to become invested in their struggles and keep hoping against hope that they will have a happy ending. Indeed, it has been proven that personalities in GoT are far from static, and originally, there was reason to hope that more redemption scenarios might play out as a result. However, the opposite has been the rule, with almost all the likable characters either getting killed or morphing into vengeful, blood-thirsty anti-heroes. While there are one-time villains who have become more sympathetic via the experiences they have undergone, there are very few full conversion experiences to be had.

Although George R.R. Martin claimed to have been inspired to delve into fantasy literature by J.R.R. Tolkien, he made a point of setting his own works far apart from fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings, where one side clearly represents goodness and the other clearly represents evil. Martin explained that he was intent upon showing the human cost of the inter-family feuding in a realistic manner, something which he felt was sorely lacking in such stories as LotR, where orc extras die aplenty…and absolutely no one cares. He also stressed that he was not so much inspired by conflicts between “good” vs. “bad” sides going up against each other as he was by human hearts at war with themselves. Hence, he wanted to show that it is not so much dark lords and mystical rings that should fill us with a dread of evil, but rather our own natures (and given his capacity for warping out his characters, he’s obviously given this quite a bit of thought!).

But it seems Martin is missing out on a major piece of philosophy within The Lord of the Rings, which sees mythological allegory for unseen realities to be a powerful means of expressing truth. As a result, the orcs are not so much meant to be individuals as representations of the perverting force of evil itself. Nevertheless, almost all the major characters in Tolkien’s literary universe are very much dealing with “hearts at war with themselves” as they struggle against the temptation of giving into the corrupting power of the One Ring. Frodo Baggins epitomizes this, and almost every major character experiences some internal turmoil the either results in their triumph or demise. Just because the majority of them are shown as succeeding in their internal struggles against evil (not all, mind you; Gollum, Saruman, and to a lesser extent, Denethor, epitomize failure on this account), it doesn’t make the former is any less “realistic” than the latter.

Indeed, such a stance would be giving the power of evil over the human soul far too much credit. While we are certainly capable of great evil and perversion, we are also capable of great good and virtue. Also, it is often the smallest acts of kindness that have the power to redeem and restore and bring good out of even the most horrible circumstances. Tolkien was keenly aware of this, while Martin commonly allows his story to be carried away by an undercurrent of cynicism and despair, showing that the only way to win in Westeros is by “playing the game” of corruption, deceit, and violence. In fact, learning how to do so is hailed as crossing over from childhood to adulthood, from naiveté to maturity, and most of the character arcs claim this utter dissolution of the soul for their climax. Sansa Stark, the once innocent daughter of a noble father, stands out as a prime example, as she is slowly transformed by the brutality she experiences into taking pleasure in brutality herself. Many have come to see this as an intended boon towards an extreme form of feminism that decries all traditional feminine virtues, and falsely promotes a penchant for blood-letting and devious political maneuvering to be equivalent to female “liberation.”

Not only does this become dull and repetitive, but it also creates a false dichotomy between being wise and being virtuous. It completely fails to comprehend Christ’s injunction to be “as wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” using a well-formed mind, heart, and soul to govern our actions. Furthermore, all these examples misrepresent the true nature of maturity which is meant to build upon those the lessons and morals we learned as children as opposed to disconnecting us from them. As our intellects sharpen and we develop in our understanding of the world around us, we must strive to keep our hearts pure and innocent so that we might enter the Kingdom of Heaven. To put it simply, eating from the tree of forbidden fruit of sin under the false promise of becoming like gods through our intellectual prowess is not the way to go.

But the other difference between Tolkien and Martin’s worlds can best be understood as a presence, and an absence, of the power of divine grace interacting with free will. In Middle Earth, most of the characters find the strength needed to triumph over evil, and even when they stumble and fall – as Frodo did many times when carrying the Ring, or Boromir did when trying to wrest the Ring away from him – there is still the ever-present, and very plausible chance of redemption through the sometimes small movements of the heart and the providential unfolding of events. It is the submission to a higher good, and the power of true love held in friendship, that ultimately saves the day. Even Gollum, corrupted by the Ring beyond recall, still has a vital part to play in saving the world because of mercy shown to him by Bilbo and later Frodo, even though he was undeserving of it.

In Westeros, on the other hand, the characters seem trapped in a vicious cycle of evil with little hope, or heart, to free themselves. Acts of kindness are far and few in between, and almost always result in disaster for those daring to perform them, with the implied warning that “no good deed goes unpunished.” The characters find themselves sacrificing decency as being too costly a commodity and simply submitting themselves to “the way things are”, learning the tricks of the terrible trade for survival and dominance. Also, it is interesting to note that Martin, a fallen-away Catholic, takes great pains to develop complex religious belief systems for Westeros (some which have striking similarities with the Catholic Church), but they are shown as largely meaningless exercises, whereas Tolkien, a practicing Catholic, never mentions God directly in The Lord of the Rings, and yet the Divine presence permeates Middle Earth through and through.

This affects the entire structure of the narrative, for while providence is the main guide in Tolkien’s world, making all individual stories subject to a Greater Story with purpose and meaning, individual stories in Martin’s world are randomly generated causations, without a focus on the common good holding together the whole. Although both use the premise of following multiple characters on separate journeys, the former knits these together through a higher power at work, forming the overarching backbone of the tale. The latter bends the rules of traditional storytelling to the point of breaking them, and sacrifices a sense of centralizing focus. Indeed, Westeros is a world of “sound and fury signifying nothing”, from careless sexuality, to character deaths, to spiritual philosophy. While some might make comparisons with Shakespearian tragedies such as Richard III, the tone of these works maintained a much deeper sense of moral order and analytical critique that kept the ship on a straight course.

In the midst of this spiritual abyss, Martin also seems to have a hard time sustaining genuinely intimate relationships between his characters. There seems to be a constant barrier blocking the way to true love, or else assuring that it is brutally cut short and scattered to the wind. If even a spark of hope or chance for real redemption dare be enkindled through such relationships, it is almost certainly doomed to be snuffed out in the name of “realism.” Even according to the rule of percentages, this fails to be fair to the transforming power of love and loyalty found in countless real-life stories. If Martin is so insistent upon historical inspiration, I do wonder why he has not managed to integrate elements from any of these instead of always portraying the glass of life as being altogether empty of the milk of human kindness or, indeed, gratitude of kindnesses performed, which is a sorely lacking element.

If anything, it can be said that Martin has a knack for magnifying the depravity of humanity in all its ugliness…and tragically, some find it to be more than a little entertaining. One must wonder if this has anything to do with the author’s personal experiences of life or simply his adopted pessimistic philosophy which he sought to infuse into the natural law of his fantasy world. Either way, while he has spoken at length about his stories being “sophisticated fantasy”, Game of Thrones is infamous for gratuitous sexuality and violence – which are often combined for full throttle shock factor effect. This can be traced back to Martin’s own determination to make his readers “feel” the effects of the graphic sex sequences in his books, even those which fall into the most twisted categories.

In contrast, The Lord of the Rings champions the beauty of chaste love and life-giving relationships as a very real and substantial alternative to debasing debauchery. Instead of turning sexuality into some type of illusory play-thing of the masses to fulfill perverse sexual fetishes, Tolkien shields it as an act of true intimacy, a decision which to my mind makes him far more “sophisticated” than Martin, and lives up to a much more positive and hopeful Catholic philosophy. Similar to his handling of religion, Tolkien uses the element of romance sparingly and yet with great depth and meaning, demonstrating the power of life-affirming love, whereas Martin splurged on the superficial and perverted and fails to capture the essence of the subject. This all emphasizes the fact that while Tolkien chose the focus more on the triumph over the soul over the world, the flesh, and the devil, Martin chose to focus on just the opposite, in almost all areas of the human experience.

Does this mean that dark themes involving violence and sexuality should not be introduced into any form of fiction? Of course not. Indeed, they are often vital topics of discussion and analysis, and tragically do play a fairly large role in the story of our fallen humanity. But I think that there is always the danger of making darkness seem perversely glamorous if not properly contrasted with the light. In essence, if there is not some good that is being pointed to through the introduction of these themes, and they are meant to stand alone for their own sake, there is something seriously wrong. But it cannot even be said that the majority of these pornographic flings and blood-soaked massacres serve much more of a purpose than to provide a cheap ratings boost.

Even when dark themes are introduced for the right reasons, tasteful portrayals are often hard to come by. In daily life, no one needs to see extended blood-letting and sexual abuse sequences in live time. The themes can be explored in suitably tasteful ways without having to drag everyone through the highly disturbing filth in the name of what HBO decides is suitably “entertaining.” It is mocking the public intelligence to think that we need everything explicitly spelled out in order to get the idea or appreciative the gravity of the subject matter. In the process, it transforms tragedy and horror into a consumer commodity promising the dangerous thrill of a roller-coaster ride, desensitizing our souls and making us callous to human suffering.

All of this has helped set a cynical trend in modern entertainment. Political intrigue replaces emotional depth, world-building complexity replaces lasting truths, and sordid sensationalism replaces committed relationships between characters. Since most people are more likely to be informed by pop fandoms such as GoT than by real history, the world of our ancestors continues to be chronically misrepresented and misunderstood. Instead of a critique of violence, the graphic content morphs into something of an advertisement for it as viewers become emotionally invested in the feuding.

Indeed, I used to think some of the reactions to The Hunger Games were a bit unnerving, with people seemingly just a bit too eager-beaver about the arena scenes. But by and large, that franchise managed to address the darkest issues with commendable taste and nuanced analysis, keeping faith with an underlying regard for human dignity and concluding the series with a deeply life-affirming message. As for Game of Thrones, the viewers are actually starting to take pleasure in pain, even if it was fictional, as the characters die hideously gruesome deaths on screen. One online commenter wrote that observing one of the characters suffocate was “music to my ears.” Needless to say, this is disturbing, because the safety zone of fiction can easily cross over into real life reactions, as the characters are *still* human beings.

But there is a pervading sense that we should somehow be proud of those taking revenge and relish it’s sweetness with them. It is seen as being somehow strong and even noble. But this is not the way of Christianity, and indeed the story is not set in a Christian world. In fact, Westeros could be seen as an alternate vision of medieval Europe had it never converted to Christianity or adopted the moderating code of chivalry. But should there still not be some moral law? And is our culture so eager to rally behind “heroes” who are not heroes at all, and are we still failing to see vengeance for the weak and cowardly thing that it really is? True heroism is forgiving the unforgivable. It is loving those who hate you and praying for those that persecute you and never, ever becoming that which you are fighting against. Perhaps instead of pop-culture anti-heroes, it is time to turn to the lives of saints. For Christians, we must always seek to transform ourselves through the Grace of Christ and become more fully Human, made in the Image of God. Time to raise the bar.

More subtly, GoT has can be used to validate Machiavellian politics and shadowy character traits. Instead of mixed characters simply being portrayed as sympathetic due to the human condition, their warped aspects are made to seem acceptable and even heroic. It becomes more important to be “clever” than to be good, which is seen as nothing short of dull and unrealistic. Indeed, not only unrealistic, but illusory. To quote the character Peter Baelish: “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, given a chance to climb, they refuse. They cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”

This monologue summarizes much of the philosophy behind Game of Thrones. Survivors are the ones to root for, even if they get their finger-nails dirty in the process. Indeed, true conversion of life and redemption of heart come to be seen as undesirable and simplistic. This is reflected in other popular series such as Wolf Hall, which features Thomas Cromwell as one such sympathetic survivor anti-hero. In contrast, Thomas More, renowned for his moral integrity, is recast as a priggish, masochistic religious fanatic. Moral orthodoxy is swiftly passing out of style, and moral ambiguity (not just within characters, but within themes) is en vogue.

But secondly, perhaps more profoundly, the celebration of anti-heroes simply reflects a growing ambiguity in society’s moral compass in which “gray is okay.” While fallen human nature is a fact of life worthy of sympathy, it is not worthy of applause. Indeed, we have come to the point when we are unable to sympathize with or applaud true acts of virtue and heroism. In the eyes of many, even the historical reality of Thomas More’s courageous refusal to betray his conscience at the cost of his own life, simply demonstrated foolishness and a lack of political savvy. Even with all his internal struggles, they find him a bore precisely because he actually did conquer his fears and stand firm in his beliefs. They find more appeal in Cromwell, who might have been willing to sell out his own mother for a farthing, but at least seemed to have “street smarts”…until even he overplayed his hand by hooking up Henry VIII with homely wife number 4, an act of critical misjudgment that cost him his head!

Frankly, this obtuse perspective seriously damages my faith in the present generation, which dreads being challenged to rise to something higher than a lazy embrace of their own vices. Also, it is making the horrendous mistake of giving too much credit to evil as being more “realistic” than good. This reminds me of the concept of evil merely being a shadow of good. Indeed, true Goodness is the only Real thing there is. Evil is actually a perversion of the good, a phantom that preys upon our weaknesses. Yet Goodness, by its very nature, can never be destroyed, for it flows forth from God, the eternal essence of reality, and will always win out in the end. Romans 12:21instructs us: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

We must be reminded of that always, and that stories glorying in goodness never grow old. To quote C.S. Lewis: “Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” This has nothing to do with childish naiveté and everything to do with arming oneself for the fight with the theological virtue of hope. In almost the antithesis of Peter Baelish’s ode to nihilism and claim that climbing the ladder is all that counts, Gandalf encapsulates the philosophy of Tolkien’s universe beautifully in his recognition of what is capable of defeating evil: “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

It is also worthy of note that the rare individuals who stand out as having strong moral back-bones in Game of Thrones are almost always doomed to wind up dead, usually on account of some virtue they were unable to part with or some act of mercy that came back to punish them. Again, we see the stark contrast between Tolkien’s Catholic worldview and Martin’s secularist worldview. Firstly, I would say that this portrayal of virtue as being inherently destructive, and indeed containing within it everyone’s “fatal flaw”, is a serious breach of understanding on the part of the author. However, we must concede that it is often true to life that we suffer for doing the right thing. As Thomas More points out in A Man for All Seasons, if virtue was rewarding in this world, everyone would be virtuous.

But virtue is rarely rewarded in the temporal sense, and we must not expect it to be in this world. It is often a thing that causes us to be scorned, and rejected, and sometimes destroyed. But the point Martin seems to be missing in his stories is that it is worth being destroyed over, a reality More embraced when he lay his head down on the block. In doing so, he was following the example of his savior Jesus Christ, who laid down his life so that all of us could be redeemed from the snares of evil and be given the grace to be transformed through Him. It is all a matter of what is real, and what is not. If this world is all there is, noble sacrifices are matters of stupidity. However, if the three transcendents of goodness, truth, and beauty do exist, such sacrifices exercise the pinnacle of wisdom.

Virtue has value in and of itself, regardless of the consequences on this earth. In the end, life itself holds little recommend it if every good attribute is sacrificed in order to sustain it for a longer span of time. Death comes for the good and bad alike – the main thing is what state we are in when the time comes. For Christians, this world is not the end, and we hold out hope that everything will be set right on a higher plane. And from this same eternal perspective, the great moments in history will not be based on power and political one-up-man-ship, but rather on the intentions of the heart and each act of love performed, no matter how seemingly insignificant. In this light, perhaps the most courageous, mature, and proactive thing any of the GoT characters could do would be to willingly lose “the game” and save their own souls that they are gambling away far too cheaply.

Since Game of Thrones is as of yet an unfinished symphony, it is currently impossible to give it a full critique. Of course, there have been some moments of humanity, goodness, and worthwhile epiphany to be had, but considering the length and intensity of the series, they are fleeting and almost always reversed or rendered effectively null in later plot twists. Even many long-time readers/viewers are feeling increasingly disenchanted with the proceedings and decried them as “spiritually bankrupt”. After all, people tend to follow a story for characters they can connect with, and when they’re all dead, or otherwise have become despicable, a chasm begins to widen between the story line and the audience. This risks undermining Martin’s whole rationale for introducing key character deaths to begin with, as people are beginning to detach themselves from them, similar to the way they are detached from orc deaths, and simply accept it as a predictable part of the game.

At this point, many of come to see Game of Thrones as something of a joke, trying desperately to out-do itself in grotesque displays and unusual means of inflicting death on characters, and feeding the fires of ever more bizarre fandom theories about far-fling-flings that result in the conception of interconnected characters X, Y, and Z. In the fanfiction community, the reactions range from the ingenious to the absurd to the obsessive as to how to save the storyline from what everyone can predict will be a typically nihilistic finale. It could accurately be called a form of therapy for the fans who find themselves consistently traumatized by developments and yet, much like the characters, cannot seem to extricate themselves from the vicious cycle of emotional abuse! Meanwhile, even the GoT actors seem somewhat desperate to reaffirm their off-screen identities, as they travel the globe proving that they are, in fact, “nice guys” whose hearts bleed for the unprivileged peoples of the planet.

On a comic note, there have been more than a few hilarious side-effects of the series, including a flood of “brace yourself” memes, as well as cut-up jokes indicating that Martin’s marked inability to finish writing the series in a timely manner may have to do with the fact that he has, quite simply, hit a brick wall after turning as his characters into vengeful psychos, and that those characters may just decide to rub him out for the slam-bash finale! Failing that, if he carries out his threat to take umbrage with the fanfiction community over the use of his characters (possibly because he’s scared they might come up with a superior storyline than he has), the fan base might just take up the banner themselves! Also, in the interests of saving Peter Dinklage from having to go back to playing roles set in Narnia and the North Pole, and given how his appearance and psychological state as Tyrion Lannister has proceeded to plummet, some sci-fi fans have mercifully offered him the option of metamorphisizing into…a Star Wars Ewok! 😉

Although Martin has hinted that he might try and give the series a “bitter-sweet” ending (after 2 or 3 more volumes…and his retreating from the public light, aside from giving the odd interview in which he slobbered over the sorrow of having to “part ways” with his beloved, albeit demented, characters at the series’ close), the current state of affairs indicates that it has already plunged into the forest of no return. Indeed, after the last plot twist has twisted, and the last shock factor sprung, and the last act of retribution accomplished, what will people be able to look back and remember as a lasting legacy of the program? Catch-phrases? Contortions? OMG moments? Will anyone really care who winds up sitting on the Iron Throne when the curtain closes, if the Iron Throne still exists at all (which, according to some fandom theories, is far from a certainty)? If there is not some deeper message to be taken away, then Westeros may well become the proverbial house built on sand that will be washed away by the sea of time.

Yet Tolkien’s Middle Earth, often disparaged in the face of the latest hype, will endure. The reason is that, as Sir Peter Jackson pointed out, it is a triumph over the grips of cynicism and an ode to the deepest realities of the human experience. Indeed, to come full circle to the comparison withThe Lord of the Rings, I think that Samwise Gamgee’s words are the ultimate worthwhile pay-off: “There’s some good in the world…and it’s worth fighting for.” Maybe this is the most profound element of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works of which George R.R. Martin’s saga seems to have lost sight while getting caught up in exploring the depths of depravity…there is always hope. And goodness. And light. And it is more “real”, in the purity of the word, than evil, and people can embrace it fully and passionately, and it is only through this embrace that they will be able to break the back of hate.

Dowry in the Shadows: The Suppression of Catholicism and Spiritual Vacuum in British Society

In this essay, I am going to explore some of the causes which led to the opening of a “spiritual vacuum” in Britain, starting with the rending of Christendom under the Henry VIII during the 16th century, and the innumerable ramifications that continue to affect the British national consciousness in the present day.

The unbiased reader must acknowledge that the Catholic Church, in spite of many failings of her members, has been a source of much good in the history and development of mankind. She was a major source of preserving order and learning after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and integral in the rise and development of Western Civilization. Since it was separate from any governmental organization that sprang up, it also served as the potential conscience of those government systems. It was a spiritual power, distinct from the temporal powers of given countries. It provided a cohesive front for Christendom, welding together many feudal states into one civilization.

The division of Christendom started out as a reaction against the corruption that had entered the Church due in large part to the temporal power assumed by the clerics. However, the Reformation in its full-blown state was not a “reforming” movement, but rather a revolt. This is something that both Catholic and Protestants should be able to agree on today, simply based on the historical reality. It did not seek to refurbish the house, but rather pull it down from its foundations. It did not seek to go for marriage counseling, but declare a bitter divorce. It did not merely oppose the injustices and corruption; if Luther and his fellow religious rebels had merely stuck with those principles, they may have become great saints of the Church.

But instead, these would-be-reformers attacked and re-wrote doctrine, and as such set themselves up in opposition to the Church Magisterium. It was a declaration of war against the unity of Christendom. It was challenging the very bedrock of their civilization. Of course it was bound to have political repercussions, and the generators of the revolt expected no less. What they did not expect was that their fiery, often sincere convictions would open the door to spiritual luke-warmness across Europe and the world through the political domino effect. Nowhere was this more obvious than in England under Henry VIII (reign: 1509 – 1547).

By establishing the Church of England, he essentially assured that the religion of the country would be a religion of nationalism. It was not a matter of moral convictions, but political convenience. His desire to have his marriage to his  wife, Catherine of Aragon (who failed to produce a male heir), annulled, and marry his hoped-to-be fertile mistress, Anne Boleyn, was the driving force behind the fracture…even though he would later have Anne beheaded on a trumped up charge after she too failed to produce a male heir.

In spite of this, Henry himself remained a doctrinal Catholic in all but Papal supremacy and had not intended any major change in overall belief within his kingdom. But his power-hungry actions were one step down a slippery slope. The dissolution of the monasteries, using their wealth to fill the king’s coffers and their lands to reward the king’s high-born henchmen, was a visible sign that the spiritual powers in England were being forcibly absorbed by the temporal.

Under Edward VI (reign: 1547-1553), Henry’s surviving son who was dubbed by the Protestant faction “the English Josiah”, a doctrinal shift took place in favor of a low-church Protestantism, complete with a full-scale “stripping of the altars” and the rejection of such things as Transubstantiation, the Communion of Saints, Marian Devotion, Priestly Celibacy, etc. At least it can be said that these changes generated by the young Edward, his uncles the Seymour brothers, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer were in some part based on genuine conviction. But even through these acts of removing the visible aspects of religious ceremony so distinctly Catholic, they were setting the stage for secular ceremony to take its place for the Protestant populace.

Under Queen Mary I (reign: 1553 -1558), the Catholic daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragorn, an effort was made to bring England back into the fold of the Catholic Faith and heal the schism of her father and reverse the heresy of her brother. But in a land of split allegiances, her burning of heretics, although not unusual considering the brutality of the era, attracted negative press. This was compounded by her marriage to King Philip of Spain, who seemed more interested in using England to bolster his own continental ambitions than being a proper support for his wife. In the end, Mary died broken and betrayed, her well-intentioned plans having back-fired miserably.

Next came Elizabeth I (reign: 1558-1603), the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Imprisoned by her sister Mary for suspected plotting, she was ambitious, clever, shrewd, and determined to reign and rule as queen. She was also unmarried and unattached to anything that might check her power. Elizabeth had lied to her dying sister and promised to uphold the Catholic Church, but upon ascending the throne quickly reneged and claimed the title Head of the Church in England. Although she said she would not “look into the windows of men’s souls”, this was nothing more than a ploy to avoid to the bad publicity that haunted Mary.

Steps were taken to eliminate Catholicism within her realm, making the Catholic priesthood a crime punishable by banishment or death. Those who hid priests or were caught attending mass were susceptible to the same punishment. When Pope Pius V made the understandable although politically unwise move of excommunicating Elizabeth (which effectively relieved subjects of their oath of allegiance), the persecutions against Catholics in England and Ireland grew worse. At the same time, Elizabeth tried to enliven the newly cemented Anglicanism by preserving some of the “smells and bells” of the old faith and introducing a new and powerful secular element to give religious fervor to the project: Nationalism.

This was the age of the Sea Dogs, pirates for Queen and Country, whose anti-Catholicism was unleashed upon the prosperous Spanish colonies in the New World. Their razing and pillaging earned them infamy, but since England had set itself apart from the rest of Christendom and their religion was in effect England herself, the rules of the high seas mattered naught and could be easily absolved by the Head of the Church, Queen Elizabeth, who was more than happy to knight their leader, Sir Francis Drake. All this did nothing to smooth out relations with Spain, which understandably sought to rid themselves of a thorn in their side.

The result was the launch of the Spanish Armada, which ended in total disaster for the Spanish. This elicited a sigh of relief from almost all of the English, Protestant and Catholic alike, who still cared enough about their country and culture not to want any “Spaniels” ruling the roost. The Black Legend began to be cultivated, painting anything Papist as perverted and superstitious, the opposite of everything Englishmen wanted to be. The propaganda seeped in thoroughly, and after the death of Elizabeth, new divides took full shape within the Anglican Church, between those who were closer to Catholic practice and those who were further afield.

Under James I (reign: 1603-1625), the first Stuart king to rule England and Scotland, factions such as the Puritans and Separatists either wanted to purge or separate the Anglican Church because, in their opinion, it was still far too Papist. They, too, faced persecution, which convinced many of them to leave the country and found settlements in the New World. But they needn’t have worried about their king being a Catholic-lover. The Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes and his fellow disillusioned Catholics certainly didn’t improve his opinion of them, and this attempt to blow up the king and parliament assured that James would continue the persecution begun under Elizabeth, even though his own mother had been the very Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, from whom he had been taken as a baby by the Protestant Lords in Scotland.

But it was in the reign of James’s son, Charles I (reign: 1625-1649), that the factions within the Anglican Church exploded in full light. Charles, although still anti-Catholic, was much more sympathetic to a high-church form of worship, and tried to force it on low-church sympathizers in Scotland and England. This was one of the main triggers of the English Civil War, a bloody contest that ultimately resulted in the overthrow and execution of the king and a Puritanical government that devolved into a police state bent on enforcing personal morality. It was also during this time that Oliver Cromwell led his army into Ireland and, fueling them with exaggerated stories of atrocities committed against Protestant settlers by Irish rebels, wiped out or sold off half of the very Catholic population.

When the monarchy was finally restored under King Charles II (reign: 1660-1685), the morality and religiosity of the court and country, which had been brutally enforced under Cromwell, collapsed in a heap. It was as if after breaking off with the rest of Christendom, the people of England had a hard time knowing whether to be religious fanatics or amoral derelicts, or perhaps a little of both! While some good Protestant clergymen certainly tried their best to make their influence felt positively, there was little real religious authority left to lead the flock. Everything was an experiment, and every time something went afoul, a new one was struck up lickety-split. But one thing could be counted on: if something really awful happened, the Boogie-men Catholics could be blamed. Such was the case with the great fire of London, unleashing a new wave of hatred against the small body of Catholic recusants left.

King Charles shocked his kingdom by following the lead of his brother and converting to Catholicism. Then that very brother, James II (reign: 1685-1688), inherited the throne and proceeded to try to give religious freedom to everyone involved so as to free his fellow Catholics from persecution. The very anti-Catholic population went bonkers. James handled the situation badly, responding haughtily to critics and banishing or imprisoning them for refusing to bend to his will. When his infant son James was born, and baptized a Catholic, the parliament decided they had had enough and invited his son-in-law, William of Orange, to come over from the Netherlands and seize the throne.

The soon-to-be-crowned William III (reign: 1609-1702), a Dutch Calvinist who was ironically allied with the Papal States against France at the time, agreed to take up the offer in order to secure an English alliance. He proceeded with a letter of Papal support and an army stacked with Catholic mercenaries, while masses were said for him back at the Spanish Embassy in The Netherlands. But of course the Whig historians preferred to overlook those minor details, and instead focused on his successful invasion and overthrow of his father-in-law as a purely Protestant triumph.

One way or another, his ascension to the throne, along with his wife Mary II (reign: 1689-1694), came with the newly instituted rule that no Catholic could ever sit on the throne of England again. This was followed up by the Penal Laws designed to keep the Catholics from owning property or weapons or getting a good education. These laws were particularly harsh on the still steadfastly Catholic majority in Ireland, where a new Protestant hype-league was spawned among the Protestant Scotch-Irish settlers named in honor of King William: “The Orange Order”.

During the subsequent reigns of Queen Anne (reign: 1702-1707), the four Hanoverian King Georges (reigns: 1707-1830), and William IV (reign: 1830-1837), religious life in Britain took a downward spiral. Everyone was sick of religious infighting, and just threw up their hands with almost all the experiments except a luke-warm, state-run Anglicanism that was usually more a matter of social status than religious belief. Certainly, there were still those devout Anglicans who did take their religion seriously, including King George III (reign: 1760-1820), but they seemed to be the exception instead of the rule. Indeed, the spiritual vacuum was opening ever wider, creating an apathetic society that gradually became more dependent on nationalism for its identity.

A good example of this is that when the British captured Quebec in 1759, they took down a French Catholic statue of St. John the Baptist and erected one of British General James Wolfe to put in its place. Meanwhile, Westminster Abbey, once the burial site of saints and kings, had since become a resting of predominately “secular saints.” While I have nothing against General Wolfe or the present residents of the Abbey, the embrace of purely secular culture was nothing more than a blatant disconnect. One might “drink like a Londoner” and “swear like a Briton” and it was considered normality, but religion became more-or-less a thing viewed as hypocrisy by the masses.

In the British military, a moving microcosm of British society, religion sank to an all-time low. Much of this was because upper-crust Anglican chaplains tended to be out-of-touch with the men, and were there only to provide some sense of outward structure. But few were willing to put their lives on the line for their men, and viewed it as merely another job for a salary as opposed to a mission for the salvation of souls. Of course, there were exceptions here as well among Anglican and other Protestant ministers of the gospel. But again, the problem remained, because the clergymen were seen as merely another wing of the secular authorities. Indeed, history shows that for a church to truly make a difference, it has to be independent of the state for its own safety.

In response to the obvious, more splinter-off groups sprang up in the 18th century in order to rekindle the flame of religious fervor, including the Methodist movement of John Wesley, who made all the world his parish. At the same time, the laxity in views on religion that came with the Enlightenment also enabled a broadening of religious toleration, which paved the way for Catholic Emancipation Acts to be passed through Parliament. This provided those with Catholic sympathies freedom of expression, and in spite of continued anti-Catholicism among the population, gave rise to the Oxford Movement in the 19th century. But with the widening of Empire under Queen Victoria (reign: 1837-1901) came the full blossoming of that jingoism that equated religion with the state. As the Sea Dogs had found it convenient to commit crimes in the name of Queen and Country, so did many war-mongering imperialists.

As the years passed, the nation of Britain became more intrinsically linked to her empire. The supposed superiority of the British system became the new religion to be spread to the four corners of the earth. However, the glory days of empire began to lose their sheen. Two world wars changed the landscape of the national consciousness, and when the empire began to collapse, the country gradually lost its sense of identity. With this loss of national identity came the reopening of the spiritual vacuum that British Nationalism had previously filled. Also, even the loose trappings of religiosity began to fall apart, as out-and-out atheism came into vogue. But atheism, if followed to its logical conclusion, is an embrace of cynicism, and as such, never fills that emptiness within the human soul. Another ingredient must be sought out and found.

Recently, a new form of nationalism has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of cynicism and disillusionment with church and state, taking on attributes that tap into some deeper spiritual longing. British nationalism is now old hat and considered repugnant, but are we not seeing a rise in Celtic nationalism, frequently accompanied by the same negative qualities of self-proclaimed superiority and isolationism? It also thrives on making a pseudo-religious cult out of a secular state, with the ideal of localized independence as its dogmatic creed and a supposed instant fix for the problems of daily life. For many, these old, repackaged ideologies appear to be a spiritual oasis in the midst of the dryness that has settled over the whole idea of Britain like a desert storm.

In another avenue, there is the rapid rise of radical Islam, which has captured the imagination of many Brits, especially among the population of young people. It is seen a romantic and passion-driven alternative to lax and lazy Christianity meshed in with the heresy of British-ism. Never mind the shocking violence it advocates, wreaking havoc throughout the Middle East and the world on people of all faiths and none, and the sheer treason that it involves against Queen and Country. At least it is not luke-warm. It is something to sink one’s teeth into. If Man cannot have one thing, he will have another. As Chesterton said, “If men stop believing in God, they will not believe in nothing, but believe in anything.”

The root of this desperation to find fulfillment can be traced back to the false concept that any secular state can take the place of religion, or that any secular ideal can replace God in the human psyche. It never can, although such an attitude is often portrayed as wonderfully intellectual and modern. It is the pinnacle of Humanism, and that is its folly, for Humanism as a religion is merely inward-gazing self-acclamation. It always fails to satisfy. That is why these infatuations, like the ones that went before them, are ultimately doomed to crumble. The nature of their foundations assures it.

Such is the tragedy that will continue to repeat itself if the British people do not rediscover the importance of their own religious roots and reach for some transcendent reality that probes the depths of desire and understanding. Paradoxically, if they wish to save their country that they once worshiped and that sorely let them down, they must cease to make it the center of their universe. They must look to God as their top priority, and all other elements will fall into their rightful places, avoiding love-hate extremes. One must not worship one’s nation, nor make it their religion. They must not put her on so high a pedestal that she will topple and fall. We must expect imperfections, and learn to deal with them in love and true patriotism, through the grace of God who will never fall short of perfection.

I have always maintained that beneath the surface, the Brits with their pomp and ceremony and constant spiritual searching are still cultural Catholics. I still maintain it. In days of old, they were one of the most Catholic parts of Christendom, called “Our Lady’s Dowry.” The pillagers of the past may have become disgusted with the corruption of Catholic churchmen and the abuses in practice, but their constant experimentation has left nothing new in way of purifying fallen humanity. Rather, it has created a series of further disillusionment and deceptions.

In an atmosphere of uncertainty over the future identity of the British Isles, perhaps it is now time to look to the English Martyrs and remember their sacrifices. As St. Edmund Campion said, “So the faith was planted; so it must be restored.” He was speaking of the hearts, minds, and souls of the British people, who I will never cease to pray will again discover that Christ alone is worthy of adoration, and that His gift of the Catholic Church is a true home for all spiritual pilgrims in search of that all-consuming love that transcends earthly goals and expectations.