Search This Blog


Sunday, March 1, 2015

For St. David's Day....

I'm posting this classic Welsh hymn, "Cwm Rhondda", named after the Rhonnda Valley in South Wales where it became popularized. The Welsh lyrics are attributed to the famous Welsh Methodist hymnist, William Williams Pantycelyn, known alternately as the Charles Welsey or the Isaac Watts of Wales. They were first published in 1762. It's a set classic for Royal Weddings and British Military Ceremonies!

"Cwm Rhondda" (a.k.a. "Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer")

Welsh Lyrics
Arglwydd, arwain trwy'r anialwch,
Fi, bererin gwael ei wedd,
Nad oes ynof nerth na bywyd
Fel yn gorwedd yn y bedd:
Hollalluog, Hollalluog,
Ydyw'r Un a'm cwyd i'r lan.
Ydyw'r Un a'm cwyd i'r lan

Agor y ffynhonnau melus
'N tarddu i maes o'r Graig y sydd;
Colofn dân rho'r nos i'm harwain,
A rho golofn niwl y dydd;
Rho i mi fanna, Rho i mi fanna,
Fel na bwyf yn llwfwrhau.
Fel na bwyf yn llwfwrhau.

Pan yn troedio glan Iorddonen,
Par i'm hofnau suddo i gyd;
Dwg fi drwy y tonnau geirwon
Draw i Ganaan -- gartref clyd:
Mawl diderfyn. Mawl diderfyn
Fydd i'th enw byth am hyn.
Fydd i'th enw byth am hyn.

English Lyrics
Guide me, O thou great Redeemer,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
Hold me with thy powerful hand:
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven
Feed me till I want no more.
Feed me till I want no more.

Open thou the crystal fountain
Whence the healing stream shall flow;
Let the fiery, cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through:
Strong deliverer, strong deliverer
Be thou still my strength and shield.
Be thou still my strength and shield.

When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell's destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan's side:
Songs of praises, songs of praises
I will ever give to thee.
I will ever give to thee.

William Williams Pantycelyn Cardiff City Hall from flic
William Williams Pantycelyn

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Two Poems by William Butler Yeats....

one of the quintessential Irish poets, about love, loss, and the struggles of the world. Always deep, always moody, always incomparable. Loreena McKennitt has recorded some beautiful musical renditions of both, so I hope you enjoy the written versions inspire you to check out the music tracks!

The Two Trees

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.

There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.

For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

The Stolen Child

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we've hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping
Than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping
Than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping
Than you can understand.

Away with us he's going,
The solemn-eyed:
He'll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping
than he can understand.

William Butler Yeats

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Movie Montage: Sword-and-Sandal

    I love classic Bible movies, especially the really epic ones with spectacular venues and pseudo-Shakespearean acting styles. Yes, I know some people complain about the occasionally hammy dialogue or dated connections to post-war America or ancient historical inaccuracies. But to me, these little foibles do not take away from the impact and quality of the whole. These films were made back in the day when actors actually managed to act with some genuine panache, instead of relying on sulky oh-so-insipid modern melodrama. CGI does not clutter the atmosphere beyond recognition, and we get to enjoy real on-location panoramas.

    Of course, there are also Bible movies/series that are not epics, and yet they manage to achieve an intimacy and realism that fits their purpose. After all, the main purpose of film is to tell a good story, whether it is done with grandeur or simplicity, and The Bible contains wonderfully dramatic material to work with in either style. Ultimately, I can’t helped but be inspired by the spiritual dynamism of these stories of faith, sacrifice, and redemption, and I hope that you might consider looking up some of the following titles from yesteryear and modernity.

     One of my favorites is The Robe (1953), which focuses on what might have happened to the Roman soldier who won Christ’s robe in a dice game beneath the cross. Richard Burton and Jean Simmons are both excellent actors, and make the sacrificial love story of Marcellus Gallio and Lady Diana come to life. Victor Mature and Jay Robinson co-star as the Grecian slave Demetrius and the Roman Emperor Caligula respectively. There is a good balance between emotional depth and action sequences, as well as some really juicy dialogue bits, especially from Marcellus’s trial at the end.

    Another favorite is Quo Vadis (1951), a lavish recreation of the persecution of Christians in Rome under the Emperor Nero. The star-crossed lovers are Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr as Roman officer Marcus Vinicius and Christian convert Lygia. Peter Ustinov and Finlay Currie co-star as the Emperor Nero and Peter the Apostle respectively. Although I am none-too-fond of the initial romantic angle, since Marcus is extremely aggressive in his pursuit of Lygia, and there are a few major historical inaccuracies regarding the Great Fire and Nero’s overthrow, the sufferings of the Christian martyrs endured are accurately portrayed, and the wonderful legend of St. Peter’s return to Rome is retold with reverence and imagination.

     An all-time must-see is Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), a Mosaic Masterpiece depicting the Exodus, mostly shot on location on the burning sands of Egypt. Charlton Heston is the electrifying man-of-the-hour portraying the Biblical hero Moses who challenges the equally imposing figure of Yul Brynner as Pharaoh Ramses II to “let my people go.” Co-starring are Anne Baxter as Princess Nefretiri, Moses’ former lover, and Yvonne de Carlo, his shepherdess wife. I will freely admit there are some humorously hammy bits in this epic, not least the corny double-header love triangles, fibrotic burning bush, and the addition of Vincent Price (horror movie man) and Edward G. Robinson (gangster movie man) among the (mis)cast! But still, the sheer scale and enthusiasm in the production makes it unfailingly larger-than-life.

    Another classic of the same caliber is Ben-Hur (1959), the story of a Judean prince who seeks revenge against a former-friend who betrayed his family and finds redemption in Jesus Christ who once gave him water when he was being dragged through Nazareth as a prisoner. Charlton Heston once again dominates the screen, this time as Judah Ben-Hur, and his nemesis Stephen Boyd as Masala is chillingly arrogant and callous.  Haya Harareet co-stars as Judah’s long-suffering sweetheart Esther, and Finlay Currie makes another memorable appearance as the wise man Balthasar. While there are a few weak spots in the plot and the behavior of the characters, the overall product is nothing short of powerful. This is epitomized by the famous chariot race and the curing of his mother and sister’s leprosy.

    A lesser-known Biblical blockbuster gem is David and Bathsheba (1951), a retelling of the adulterous affair and ultimate repentance of Israel’s greatest king. Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward portray the infamously lovelorn couple with realism and humanity, and I particularly like the way David is shown going through a mid-life crisis and spiritual dry-spell during the affair. Raymond Massey and Kieron Moore co-star as the Prophet Nathan and Uriah, Bathsheba’s doomed husband. While I dislike the way Nathan is portrayed as being a stony-eyed religious fanatic, the powerful conclusion of the movie, portraying David pleading to God before the Ark of the Covenant, makes up for it.

   Another little-known production is The Last Days of Pompeii (1935), which stands out as an interesting cross-section of the life of Christ and the volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii. Preston Foster plays Marcus, a gladiator hardened by personal tragedies and obsessed with providing a comfortable life for himself and his adopted son until a chance encounter with the Nazarene and a major natural disaster change his life. Kudos to Basil Rathbone, who made a wonderfully penetrative Pontius Pilate. Also, given the time period, the special effects efforts were commendable.

     For Christmas, it is traditional for my family to watch The Nativity (1978), a sensitive and evocative portrayal of the events leading up to the birth of Christ. Madeleine Stowe and John Shea star as Mary and Joseph, drawn together in a tender romance that is rarely highlighted in film depictions. We get to see them go through their inner struggles, learning to trust each other and God to get them through the extraordinary events in which Providence places them as main players. Not everything in this movie is accurate, including a supposition that Herod set-up the census to search for the Christ Child, and there are some characteristic inconsistencies to speak of as well. Nevertheless, my reaction to it is still overwhelmingly positive.

    For Easter, our traditional movie pick is Fr. Patrick Peyton’s The Redeemer (1959), the story of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ filmed on location in Spain. Luis Avarez portrays Jesus, whose face we never see turned towards the camera. The other actors participating in the film are all virtual unknown foreign talent, but this actually helps me visual them really being the characters they are playing, and their faces have been impressed into my mind as the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, Caiaphas, Pilate, and all the others. It is an emotionally engrossing dramatic depiction of the best and worst aspects of human nature, as Sin in all its ugliness falls on the back of the Most Innocent, only to be conquered through His ultimate triumph over Death.  

    The Living Christ Series (1951) put out by Cathedral Films is also an oldie not to be missed. The secret of its power is its simplicity, unfolding the Gospel in a warm and real way. There is no over-the-top Hollywood schmaltz, but just people being people without airs and arrogance. Christ and his apostles come to be well-loved characters who we dread can be hurt. Little-known Biblical background material is explored. It is low-budget, and yet movingly intimate.

    As for visually-driven short films, Lamb of God (1992) produced by the LDS Church stands out at the top of its game. The visual effects are powerful without being excessive, the flashbacks are poignant, and there is an air of authenticity captured through the use of the languages of Aramaic and Latin. It is packaged into a concise 25 minute package with artistic poise. So if the Mormon missionaries who dropped it off in our Catholic mailbox are reading this, I want to take the opportunity to thank for introducing me to this production, which I now watch ever Good as a devotional. Oh, and thanks also to our in-house Mormon, Rachel Lianna, who is the only person I know who has also watched the film and with whom I can relate about it! J

   Although not a Biblical film per se, Spartacus (1960) is a glorious epic about sacrificial love and undying freedom that is set at the height of the Roman Empire. Kirk Douglas is larger-than-life as the heroic title character who leads a massive slave rebellion against the might of the Imperial Army. His execution by crucifixion certainly does turn Spartacus into an earthly type of the Christ, and even the intro narration makes that connection by noting how many years these events took place before the coming of the “gentle carpenter from Nazareth.” Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, and Charles also have their parts to play in this epic. The Acting and general production values are excellent, and the plot holds its own with inspirational grandeur.

    While on the subject of ancient-era gems, check out The 300 Spartans (1962), commemorating the gallant Grecian defense against the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae in 380 B.C. Richard Egan stars as Leonidas, the lion-hearted leader of the Spartans who has a keen sword and wit to match. When informed that the greatly superior Persian force will shoot so many arrows they will blot out the sun, he replies boldly, “Then we will fight in the shade.” This film boasts some very fine battle sequences, and while there are quite a few historical liberties taken (there were actually about 4000 allies fighting with the Spartans for the first two days of the battle, and at least 1200 fighting with them on the cataclysmic third…although it is true that all of them put together were still vastly outnumbered), it is certainly worth viewing as an inspirational part of ancient history often overlooked.

    And just for fun…if you’re in the mood for an animated feature, look into The Easter Story Keepers (1998), about a Christian baker named Ben, based in Rome in 64 A.D. Following the destruction of the city by fire, he takes in several homeless children and tells them the stories of Jesus which he explains it is his mission to tell as a “story keeper.” Meanwhile, the Roman soldiers of the Emperor Nero crack down on Ben, and he and his friends are forced to take refuge in the Catacombs. Overall, this movie is an ode to the importance of story-telling in the Christian life, and it does a riveting job of demonstrating it through memorable characters, beautiful artwork, and juicy historical legends.

     Throughout his teachings, Jesus made clear that we all have a mission to use our gifts and talents for the Glory of God and the betterment of our fellow man. I believe the makers of the above movies and series have done just that through their dramatizations of the Word of God and moments in history when virtue and heroism won the day. It is a testimony to art that shall continue to touch the hearts of many for generations to come.

A Scene from the film  The Ten Commandments


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"Pascal's Wager"...

has made an appearance in some of my reading material recently. It’s a famous and controversial argument in favor of the existence of God often used by Christian apologetics. It has been called the potentially weakest or strongest argument available when debating with an atheist. Basically, it runs as follows:

    If a skeptical person were to lay a bet on whether or not God exists, it would smarter to bet on God existing, since if this is the correct position it will make all the difference for him when the time comes to “meet his maker”. If the position is incorrect, nothing from nothing is still nothing, and when you die and fade into nothing you will not be bothered by your ill calculations in the least!
    The whole style of this is meant to be wryly humorous, with a touch of dramatic hyperbole for effect. It’s best described as “parliament humor”, a witty jab with a purpose to make the opponent get red in the face. And quite a few atheists do get very indignant when confronted with it, saying that it is below their intelligence and integrity. It is asking them to be opportunists, and hedging bets on the nature of reality for all the wrong reasons. Some even make a direct of point of saying that it’s “morally wrong”, although I’m a bit confused how morality comes into this, especially from people who advocate the position that human morals are nothing more than evolutionary habits or social norms without any real authority beyond an illusionary sense of meaning.
    First of all, I would probably suggest that these atheists learn to lighten up a little bit and take it on the chin, and then consider some of their own arguments, claiming that belief in God is as groundless as a Flying Spaghetti Monster or a Mystical Teapot, and ask themselves whether perhaps they might embrace a bit of hyperbole themselves. Second, I think they should come to realize that “Pascal’s Wager” was never meant to be a “stand alone” argument, but as a part of a greater whole which they might do good to explore with an open mind before saying that Pascal is asking them to abandon “truth”. Thirdly, I would encourage them to swallow their initial distaste for his quip and consider the deeper meaning within the “Wager”.

    But before any of this, it would probably be a good idea to make sure everyone is on the same page with regards to the nature of debating for and against the existence of God. Sadly, many such debates quickly devolve into an 8th Grade schoolyard squabble along these lines: “You can’t scientifically prove God exists!” “Oh, yeah? Well, you can’t scientifically prove he doesn’t exist!” This process repeats itself until we meet with the Spaghetti Monsters and Mystical Teapots. It’s kind of dumb.

     There are two points that need to be clarified to avoid this sort of cycle. One is to realize that philosophical debates are not conducted by producing scientific evidence, but rather rational arguments. After all, if there is a reality beyond the purely physical one, we would be unable to measure it with scientific instruments. This brings us to the second point. The whole premise of God is not some obtuse invisible object floating around in the atmosphere, or a celestial tyrant perched on some cloud or other. Instead, He would be the very Essence of Being, Transcendence, and Goodness. He would be the single Eternal Entity with no beginning and no end.

    There are rational, coherent, and well-thought-out arguments for believing in this Origin of All Things. If you don’t necessarily agree with them, at least try and respect them as mature analytical conclusions. Equivocating arguments for this Ultimate Being with something as silly as Spaghetti Monsters and Mystical Teapots woefully misses the whole point, and just reveals serious philosophical shallowness. After all, these debates about the existence of God are really are the existence of any meaning in life at all, making the job of an atheist apologist pretty self-defeating.

    As I mentioned above, while Pascal’s Wager needs a strong basis of rational arguments to undergird it, it still has a profound point to make about human nature and the way we live. Basically, is atheism really livable, or is it ultimately a “lost cause” in the practical flow of daily life? Looking at existence from an atheist worldview, is there any true meaning to anything, ever? I certainly know atheists who point out that they don’t need a god to have a meaningful life. But I do wonder what meaning actually means to them. All the things commonly associated with meaning are actually illusions if their belief  that nothingness is the ultimate reality.

     If we are just a combination of brain cells, our sense of identity and the ability to say “I”, is really just an illusion. Likewise, altruistic love is an illusion, because any good we do is either a herd instinct left over from an evolutionary process that helps our species survive, or we have been affected by social norms and psychologically “programmed” to behave a certain way. Hence, free will is actually an illusion as well, and some atheists are quite comfortable with admitting it. Some have even postulated that some people’s brains are wired for love, and some are not. Lovelessness is just the way that blind forces set them up; with this view in mind, it is not right or wrong. It just is. But I wonder…do they also believe that bad behavior can be explained by programming? Were Hitler and Stalin just born to behave the way they were? Do we really have a right to called them “evil”?

     Without believing in the transcendent meaning of identity, love, and free will, what meaning is left in life? Only embracing these illusions of meaning can give us even a taste of happiness. Or perhaps happiness is the wrong word…I am thinking more of joy. It is that inner wonder when struck with the majestic grandeur of nature, or the resonant beauty of music, or the extraordinary skill of dance, or the rhythmic weave or poetry, or the rousing heartbeat of a heroic story. We take it all in, and for that moment, we believe unquestioningly that it has meaning, that it is real, that its taps into some essence of transcendence that will never diminish. But if we are atheists, we must inevitably “check our brains at the door”…this is all just an illusion. Even our own thoughts are illusions.

    So even if “Pascal’s Wager” was used strictly in the perspective of our own earthly lives and not in reference to a possible Judgment Day, I think he’d still be making a very good point. Basically, if atheists follow their own logical conclusions, they basically wipe out all sense of meaning from their lives. The worldview grows so dark it melts into a realm beyond despair. Who the heck could bear to live like that? Of course, the majority of atheists do not. Most of the atheists I know are caring, sensitive, passionate people who act just like they believed in a transcendent truth and beauty within the world and every human being. But according to their worldview, that must be embracing a sense of “illusion”. How tragic.

   Ironically, this sort of takes the atheist objection to the wager full circle. Atheists will say that Pascal is asking them to abandon the truth in exchange for a safe conduct pass to Paradise. Actually, the wager could just as well be pointing out the sheer senselessness of living as if there is meaning in life, when your worldview claims asserts that there is none. As creatures of hope, we must embrace some sense of meaning and transcendence, or we would be unable to survive in any meaningful way. Even our demand for truth infers meaning. So yes…if you were to take a gamble, would it not make sense to cast it on the side of hope instead of despair, something instead of nothing? As a character in the 1978 movie The Nativity aptly said: “If you cannot least hope!”

Blaise Paschal,