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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 wing├Ęd 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,

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Song of a Grasshopper: The Spiritual Wisdoms of "Kung Fu"

    My dad and I were fishing through the wide and wonderful world of Netflix one day, searching out a new series to delve into, when he had a moment of enlightenment from days of yesteryear. “See if they have a series called Kung Fu starring David Carradine”, he instructed. “It’s a show from the ‘70’s about this Chinese guy who travels around the Old West, and has these ancient wisdom reflections. You know John Carradine, the Shakespeare actor I met in California? Well, that’s his son.” My father’s memory had sparked my interest, and when it was discovered that this series was in circulation, we put it up at the top of our queue. I didn’t expect I would come to like it as much as I did, but little by little, and episode by episode, I found myself getting hooked!

    Kung Fu falls into a genre all its own, even as it incorporates key elements from traditional Westerns and martial arts action flicks. It manages to strike an intricate balance of elements, from excellently choreographed fight sequences, to emotionally engrossing acting, to morally powerful story lines and solutions. It also produces a wonderfully different type of hero: Kwai Chang Caine, a half-Chinese, half-American Buddhist monk from the Shaolin Order who becomes a wanted man after killing the Emperor of China’s nephew, who had subsequently murdered Caine’s teacher, the blind Master Po.

    With the help of a Catholic priest, Caine escapes the country and travels across the American South-West in search of his long-lost half-brother, a notorious gunslinger. Along the way, his love of justice causes him to become embroiled in various conflicts for the sake of other people, using both physical skill and spiritual wisdom to navigate through seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And of course, there are flashbacks a-plenty from his youth spent in the Buddhist monastery in China under the guardianship of Master Po and Master Kan.

     Unlike the hoard of pistol-packing, beef-chomping, big-headed, ten-gallon-hat-wearers usually starring in Western series, Cain is deeply thoughtful, courteous, humble, and soft-spoken. He is also a vegetarian, out of respect for all living things, and a teetotaler, to keep his mental faculties alert. He carries no weapons, aside from his own body trained in the martial arts, and he only uses his fighting skills in defense of himself or others. However, when he is lent a bow-and-arrow in one episode, he is able to hit the target smack-dab in the center…with his eyes closed!

    Caine is not just trained as a warrior, but also a healer, teacher, and lover of the arts, enabling him to appreciate and excel at the physical, spiritual, and ascetic elements of self-improvement and helping bring about the betterment of others. Like all true organics, he carries a variety of healing herbs in his satchel, and aids the varied people he crosses paths with through his holistic remedies and massage therapy.

     Music is a pretty important part of Caine’s life. When he first goes to the monastery as a boy, Master Po calls to his attention that there is a grasshopper singing at his feet. “Old man, how can you know these things?” the boy questions. “Young Man, how can you not?” Po replies. From that time on, Caine is nicknamed “Grasshopper”, in order to always remind him of the timeless importance of the little things in life. Later on, when traveling across the Old West, his prized possession is a bamboo flute. Interesting, in Hindu tradition, one of the main divinities, Lord Krishna, is portrayed as playing an enchanted flute.  

     But aside from being a potential type of Krishna or perhaps Buddha (considered by Buddhists to be the Man who became fully at One with the Universe), Caine can also be seen as a Christ-like figure in many ways that bridge cultural and religious gaps, and he exhibits particularly Franciscan qualities with regards to his ability to calm and befriend animals and his embrace of poverty to keep himself from being possessed by the things of the world. He also wears no shoes, both symbolically for his position in life, and practically, because if his feet and hands are weapons of self-defense. Often people will marvel at his amazing physical strength and mental keenness, and ask, “What are you?” He answers simply, “I am a Man.”

    Eastern spirituality places a strong emphasis on the importance of self-control and mastery, physically and mentally. It is shown that when young Kwai Chang first enters the temple as a boy, he is taught to walk on thin rice paper without tearing it, and to snatch a pebble out of his teacher’s hand before he can close it. This is just the beginning of various exercises he will be made to undergo during his time in the temple, learning the art of Kung Fu. Ultimately, he earns the marks of the tiger and the dragon on his forearms, a sign that he has passed his training and been initiated into the Shaolin priesthood. At one point in the series, these marks are mistaken for the branding of a slave; he responds that these symbols represent his greatest freedom, not his bondage.

     All of this self-control stuff pays off during his Western excursion, when he is often mocked, ridiculed, and challenged to lash out, and yet restrains himself. He recalls that a man, and especially a martial artist, should never strike in anger, both because he may lose his mind-over-matter balance, and he might easily kill unintentionally. But we can imagine Caine was not always so serene, since he did pulverize the emperor’s nephew in a fight (richly-deserved as it may have been)! In the aftermath of this event that he takes no pleasure in recalling, perhaps he is extra cautious, and experiencing a type of purging for his past breach of self-control.

    I love the way Caine is able to say he “loves” other people in a very spiritual sense, referring to that love which emanates from an inner fragment of Divine light, and based upon a true appreciation for the dignity of every person. Basically, it can be summed up thusly: “The light within me recognizes, bows, and honors the light within you; and together we are one with this light.” There is an emphasis on empathy for all life, the give and take of love, and the need for togetherness as opposed to dog-eat-dog survival tactics. There is also a palpable sense that people cross paths for a reason, and all things work together for some greater purpose.

    Another thing I admire about Caine is that he does not chase after women, and truly respects them for their own sake. In fact, he resists several women trying to seduce him over the course of the series. He does have a few semi-romances, although none really get off the ground, mostly because he is pretty busy running for his life and getting into stramash after stramash on behalf of others! Nevertheless, I would have to admit that among the plethora of TV heroes, he probably embodies most of the qualities that I would seek out in a soul-mate (with the proviso that my pick would be Catholic, of course!).

    Another major theme in Kung Fu is interreligious dialogue. I am pleased to say that by and large this touchy subject is handled with impeccably good taste and balance. Caine, a through-and-through Buddhists, interacts with a various alternate religious beliefs respectfully, including Catholicism and Native American Beliefs. There definitely is an emphasis on the similarities that cross the spiritual divide, but I don’t believe the series tries to pain the erroneous conclusion that all religions are “the same”, really that common ground and mutual understanding can be reached. Much of this has to do with Natural Law, called the Tao in Eastern Tradition, which is part of the infrastructure of all humanity, and is the etching of God on our souls.

    Racism and prejudice also features heavily, and Caine himself is often targeted for his Asian background. And yet, we never find the stories sinking into stereotypes or platitudes about past wrongs. There is admirable balance in the way different races are portrayed. We meet good and bad White people, Black people, Asian people, Native American people, Hispanic people, etc. It seems as if the defining factor is how these individuals deal with the challenges they face in life, whether it be injustices towards them, or peer pressure to be unjust to others. They have free will, and are responsible for the evolution of their own identity through every choice they make for good or evil.

     There are a substantial amount of really juicy episodes in the series, and I could analyze most of them individually at length. But for my present purposes, I’ll just give a brief overview of my Top 10 Favorites, and hope that maybe some readers might get interested and decide to go in search of them: 

The Chalice:   

     What sort of possessions can claim a hold on people, and why are they all dangerous? How can we make restitution for wrongs committed, and repay past good deeds? These questions are explored when Caine encounter a Franciscan monk who has stolen an ornate chalice from his Order. Mortally wounded by brigands who rob him of the chalice, the monk makes Caine vow to relocate the stolen piece and make restitution to his Order. Along the route, we get to see through flashbacks how Caine was given sanctuary by a Catholic priest in China who hid him from the Imperial authorities and helped him escape the country. Now Caine feels a special obligation towards to Franciscans to help repay the good deed.  

The Soul Is the Warrior: 

    Where does the true power of Man lie? What is the nature of the soul, and how does it enable us to overcome fear of evil and death? The questions arise when Caine confronts a vengeful cattle baron who keeps rattle snakes in a pit in a psychological bid for power. When the landowner prepares to kill two of his captives, Caine makes him promise to release them if he will walk through the pit, like St. Francis agreeing to walk through fire before the Sultan. Caine must rely on his light-footedness and spiritual strength to get himself through the ordeal, and reflects on the lessons he was taught at the temple about the everlasting nature of the soul and his own gift of calming wrestles animals.  


     What is the nature of truth, and what happens when it is compromised, even with good intentions? Caine explores these complex issues when a young girl he befriends thinks she has witnessed Kwai Chang shoot a man, and is forced to testify against him in court. He holds nothing against her for telling the truth as she saw it, but when she lies to save his life at the last minute, he fears she has compromised her own integrity for his sake, and sets out to prove his innocence. He comments at the end that “Alethia in Greek means “lover of truth.” She bids him farewell with a kiss on the cheek, saying “I love you, Mr. Caine!” He responds, a bit choked up, “And I have never loved anyone more.” 

Spirit Helper: 

    Why do things happen the way they do? Are some people sent to be aids on our spiritual journeys? Also, how does hatred for past wrongs affect one as a person? These questions come up when Caine meets a young man from a Native American tribe who has been praying to the Great Spirit for someone to guide him. When his father is killed and his mother kidnapped by bandits, he and Caine set out to rescue her. Meanwhile, Caine has flashbacks of the murder of his own parents by an evil warlord in China, and the difficulty he had learning to let go of the gnawing hate that festered within him for many years.  

The Elixir: 

    What’s the difference between true love and usury? What are the dangers of becoming imprisoned by another person’s dominance or possessed by another person’s beauty? Caine comes face-to-face with these issues when he meets a traveling performing duo comprised of a beautiful dancer and dwarf man who is infatuated with her. She tries to seduce Caine and get him to run off with her, abandoning Nebo to his fate. But Caine gently pushes her away, saying, “Do you not think I would go back to save him for his own sake?” Ultimately, he teaches them both the importance of true love, based on giving and receiving with grace.
The Gunman: 

    Are we all capable of loving, or have some of us hardened our hearts beyond the point of return? Can we ever rediscover a sense of true love that extends to all people, for their own worth? When Caine is rescued by an outlaw and gunslinger, he tries to teach him the meaning of love, even as he tries to help him escape from those trying to gun him down. However, the effects of Caine’s teachings will have unexpected consequences when the hitherto hardened killer is unable to shoot a deputy, and is killed himself in full view of the woman he was finally about to tell he loved. This is one of the only times Caine is seen in tears, and I must say it made me a little teary as well!
 Night of Owls, Day of Doves: 
     Why do some people experience good fortunes, and others are forced into unthinkable positions out of desperation? Is there ever a chance of finding redemption after one’s reputation is sullied, especially when people refuse to let you change your image? Caine meets a group of prostitutes who have intend to try to make a fresh start for themselves when they are left a substantial inheritance. However, some people contest the legality of the will, endangering the women’s last chance for redemption. When death threats are made against them, Caine agrees to protect them and make up for a wrong done to one of the girls by a dissolute Shoalin monk.
The Stone:
    What is the meaning of true freedom, and can it ever be purchased? Do you allow injustices to define us? And what is the true meaning of justice? When a former slave from Brazil trained in the art of capoeira fighting falsely believes Caine has stolen a diamond from him, he sets out to track him down. It will take a handful of street urchins, an Irish widow, an Armenian pianist, and a heck of a fight with Caine to set the record straight. Meanwhile, the Armenian, who has dreamt of returning to his native land to restore justice there, finally realizes that “wherever justice can be done, that is Armenia!”
Empty Pages of a Dead Book: 
    Is the Law always the same thing as Justice? Is following the letter of the Law more important than embracing the spirit of it? Unfortunately, a young man bent on honoring his late Texas Ranger father by bringing criminals to justice needs to learn these lessons, but not before he finds himself embroiled in a frame-up along with his new-found friend Caine and tried and condemned for a murder they did not commit. Ultimately, they break jail and find themselves on the run, but when they are given the choice of leaving a man to die or surrendering themselves, the fusion of justice and righteousness, the word and spirit of the law, finally takes place.
The Way of Violence Has No Mind: 
    When faced with racial injustice, is it better to endure to turn the other cheek, or fight fire with fire? When is the line drawn between appropriate resistance to unjust laws, and embracing unbridles violence? These issues are explored when Caine meets with a Chinese-Cowboy-Robin-Hood-type-Outlaw, who hates whites and seeks to achieve justice for the Asian community. But when an elderly white couple agree to hide him from his pursuers, Caine tries his best to demonstrate that there is good and bad to be found in all races, and that violence only begets more violence. In this episode, Caine also manages to survive being tied to a wagon wheel underwater because he doesn’t freak out and lose his breath, but slips out of the ropes using Kung Fu muscle manipulation. 
    I hate to put a damper on my own proclivity to wax mystical about the many wonders of Kung Fu. And yet, I must lay the cold, hard facts before the unbiased reader: the series self-destructs at the tail end of the second season and on through the understandably short-lived third. What used to be a penetrating analysis of human nature and spiritual enlightenment devolved into a galactic action hero comic strip, with stupidly inserted “funny parts”, outlandish costumes and sets, fantastical story-lines, and lots of flying cyber-demons to fight…but this time with stunt men, and jerky camera angles! It was just…horrible, to the point of drawing tears from this bewailing former-fan!
     Evidently what may has started the descent into ignobility was dropping ratings and David Carradine’s pulled tendon which prevented him from continuing to hack-and-kick with his usual gusto, requiring the use of stand-ins and scene cuts. It is noticeable that Carradine is none-too-happy about the new and anti-improved developments in the series, and shows it through huffing and puffing a lot on camera (so counter-character! Grr!). Finally the pain became too excruciating even for him, and he just walked off in mid-season, putting Kung Fu out of its elongated death agony.
    Prior to the fall-off-a-cliff finale, I’m envisioning a fanciful conversation that might have taken place between Kwai Chang Carradine and Master Po: 
    Carradine: “O Great and Wise and Mystic Master, who sits cross-legged, contemplating the mysteries of the universe, who cares for lotus blossoms and garden Buddhas, and mends the wings of hummingbirds and the paws of Panda bears…uh…is there anything in the Tao that deals with motion picture contracts?” 
    Master: “Ah, Grasshopper, you must think deeply…and breathe deeply…and get out of Dodge a.s.a.p.!” 
    Carradine: “Thank you, O Mystic Master! I feel change bubbling up from within!” 
     And then I can imagine the speech Former-Fu might have given to his distraught contractors: 
    Carradine: “Look, Good Dudes in tie-dye tee-shirts, I feel the spiritual energy is just totally zapped from this here project. Man, we have like unplugged from the universe! Negativity is just choking the Life Force! Ever since we started trying to compete with those Bananas people – I mean Ben, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe – we went from Kung Fu to Kung Fooey! So I’m gimping off to yon Yeti-infested mountain to restore my inner consciousness…I also could really could use a eucalyptus bath and lavender oil massage for my tendon! Send my back-pay to dear ol’e dad in the Shakespeare troupe!” 
     Frankly, I’ve got to back yon dude 100%...only wish he’d come to the conclusion of abandoning to sinking ship earlier so that Kwai Chang could have retired with full honors still intact, instead of making the debilitating descent in to the dark backroom studios for hokey ‘70’s special-effects creature insertion and rummage sale costume creations! It seems that Carradine’s own colorful life and recent death wound up being just as messy and scandalous as the end of the series…par for the course in the life of an actor! But evidently, in addition to his acting, he was an accomplished artist and musician, and quite obviously, had mastered martial arts to a tee!
    But to conclude my review of the series on a happy note: I still think the bulk of episodes from the Golden Age of Kung Fu stand out as a timeless and very worthwhile achievement. While I remain committed to the fullness of Divine Revelation found in Jesus Christ and His Church, I have learned many interesting aspects of Eastern religions such as Buddhism and learned to appreciate some of the commonalities we share. Of course, there remain major, inescapable differences that belie the notion that somehow all religions are the same. The sincerity that is so much a part of the character of Caine would have to affirm that reality.
    Nevertheless, I believe that the moral backbone and spiritual realities brought to the fore in Kung Fu have the potential to enlighten viewers who believe they are simply a scientific accident of firing neurons, and that all perspectives on right and wrong are merely social norms or evolutionary survival tactics. Perhaps these viewers may have a strong sense of disassociation from Christianity, and be unable to accept the principle of “beyondness” and the essential meaning of life from a Christian source. And yet the words and reflections of Kwai Chang Caine may yet serve as a spiritual guide for those on the path of philosophical exploration, piercing the souls of those seeking a taste the transcendent that can be found in the love of a friend or the heroism of a warrior or the melody of a flute or the song of a grasshopper.
David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine in "Kung Fu"