Final quick Lent Film Party Movie Reviews! THE SECRET OF KELLS, I PREFER HEAVEN, and THE MIRACLE MAKER

Man, I really dropped the ball with movie reviews this year. Sorry about that! We did end up watching a few more movies, but not as many as I hoped. Here’s some quick reviews:

The Secret of Kells

It was such a beautiful, such an interesting movie, just visually ravishing.

but I came away unsatisfied. The kids didn’t start the movie knowing that the actual Book of Kells is the Gospels, and they didn’t know it by the end, either. Which is weird! It’s weird to have a whole movie about a powerful book, but never mention what the book is about. It’s okay for a movie not to teach religious things, but the whole lynchpin of the story is that the book, and what preserving it represents, is what chases out evil and darkness. They explicitly say so. And yet they never tell you what kind of book it is. That is a major flaw in the story. There’s also some suggestion that art itself, or the creative process itself, or possibly just uncurtailed creativity, is what conquers evil. But they simply don’t develop this idea. 

I wanted to like the movie, and the images in it were very powerful. But I don’t know what it was about; and for a film that’s absolutely drenched in portent, that’s a problem. Normally I’m not a fan of voice overs, but in this case, I would be in favor of someone recording a simple explainer to tie together all the themes that someone apparently thought were speaking for themselves.  Anyway, I’d like to watch it again, because I’m sure I’m not catching everything, but I was disappointed in how glib it was. 

Audience suitability: Kids ages 7 and up watched it at our house. It’s not gory or anything, but it’s fairly intense, with lots of scenes of violence and war, as well as scary, threatening magical creatures. So not suitable for sensitive kids. (I found the portrayal of war upsetting, myself.) It does portray supernatural powers and creatures as factual, but that’s part of the plot: It’s the struggle between the old pagan world and the new Christian order. So we talked to the kids about how that actually happened (if not exactly as portrayed); and we also talked about how, exactly, Christianity brought light into the darkness. I just wish this movie had demanded a little more of itself.

***

St. Philip Neri: I Prefer Heaven

It’s a long ‘un, and we have only watched the first part, right up until some prostitutes show up and one of our kids asked what a prostitute was and my husband said he would tell her tomorrow, and then he claimed that he said “we” meaning the royal we, meaning me. And then some of the kids went on a class trip to DC, and left their fanny pack of insulin in the Botanical Gardens, and everybody’s alive, but somehow and we haven’t gotten around to watching the rest of the movie yet.

That being said, this is one of the most winsome, appealing, entertaining portrayals of a saint I have ever seen. Also some of the best child actors I have seen in a long time. 

There aren’t many clips available online. Here’s the end of the scene where he has to get the kids together to try to impress the pope, so he’ll be allowed to have his oratorio. 

This is one of the hokier scenes of the movie, but in context, it was also deeply sweet and moving, and they pulled it off, slow motion and all. The way he so humbly and strenuously appeals to the crucifix on his wall, clearly fully expecting to get some response, was really striking. I don’t know anything else about Philip Neri, so I don’t know how accurate the movie is, but the character is a wonderful portrayal of holiness, which is saying something. The actor did a great job of portraying a man with a specific personality, including flaws and bad habits, but also a holy self-forgetfulness, single-mindedness, and joy that really rang true. He also had the most blindingly white chompers I’ve seen in ages. 

It is in Italian with English subtitles. They are pretty easy to read, and the dialogue is not terribly complicated, so everyone got into the swing of it pretty quickly. The story moves along briskly and it has lots of funny parts and plenty of bathos. It’s not a sophisticated movie, but it avoids gooey sentimentality by letting the characters act like real people, even if the situations they are in are painted in pretty broad strokes. 

I also enjoyed seeing the costumes and hairstyles and food of Renaissance Italy (a real breath of fresh air while folks are learning history through, augh, Bridgerton). The whole family enjoyed it, which almost never happens. We streamed it through the Formed app. 

***

The Miracle Maker

A stop motion animation movie from 1999. Kind of a strange movie. 

I don’t disagree with anything Steve Greydanus wrote in his review of this movie, which he recommends every year. They did several tricky scenes extremely well; they used various kinds of animation to great effect; they were very clever in how they framed the whole thing, making Jairus’ daughter a full character who actually knew Jesus and spent time with him. And they more or less pulled off showing Jesus as someone with supernatural power and also as a magnetic man you would want to be friends with. That’s a lot!

But I’ve seen this movie three or four times, and I always find it mildly off-putting. Part of it is that Ralph Fiennes sounds so unlike Jesus to me. It’s partly just the timbre of his voice; but it’s also his delivery. Anyone would have a hard time figuring out how to deliver the mega-familiar lines from the Gospel, but he largely decides to go full Charlton Heston, all sweat and megaphone. Yes, the material is dramatic, but the constant sturm und drang approach just washed over me and didn’t leave a mark. As someone who’s heard those words a thousand times, a more subtle and thoughtful reading might have caught my attention. 

But at the same time, if I were completely unfamiliar with the life of Jesus and the basic tenets of Christianity, and someone showed me this movie as an introduction, I would come away thinking it was an incoherent mess. It’s very episodic (which, admittedly, the Gospels also are; but if I were making a 90-minute movie, I’d keep the themes and structure very tight, and they did not), and Jesus doesn’t appear to be following any discernible plan, but just sort of chasing his moods. He comes across as a little bit nuts, honestly. The writers lean too much on the viewer to connect the dots and make sense of who Jesus is and what he’s trying to achieve. It should have been six hours long, or else they should have been much stricter about what belonged in the movie. It’s hard to say why they chose specific scenes and left others out. 

I also struggled with the faces of many of the characters who were supposed to be appealing. Jesus himself was mostly good to look at, so that was a relief; but the child Tamar and several others were goblin-like and unpleasant to watch. 

But, the rest of the family liked it. I did like many scenes, and the crucifixion sequence was very affecting. My favorite scene is the miraculous catch of fish, which shows Jesus laughing as they struggle to drag all the fish into the boat, which I guess he would have done! 

I think it’s a good thing to see lots and lots of different portrayals of Christ, so that the ones that ring true for you get lodged in your head, rather than just the one someone happened to show you that one time you saw a Jesus movie. So this is a more than decent choice for one among many. 

***

And I guess that’s all we’re going to manage this year! We want to finish I Prefer Heaven, definitely.

Here are my previous Lent movie reviews from this year:

The Jeweler’s Shop

Fiddler on the Roof and The Scarlet and the Black

Ready or not, here comes Easter!

 

Small ways to make your Triduum more holy (even if you’re busy)

Nobody told me it was Holy Week this week! And so I didn’t know.

I totally did it to myself. I usually feel so terrible about spending Holy Week frantically doing last-minute shopping for frilly dresses and tights and chocolate and candy for the kids, when I ought to be pondering my own mortality. This year, vowing to keep my priorities straight, I did all the shopping and fussing far ahead of time, and filled up my bedroom with bags and parcels of Easter goodies all packed away, ready to be brought out when the season was right.

The upshot was that, when Holy Week actually arrived, I had no clue. I had deprived myself of the usual cues of furtive guilt and desperation, and there was nothing to replace it. Now it’s almost Good Friday, everything’s ready, and I’m completely disoriented.

Jokes aside, I have been thinking about how to keep Holy Week holy — beyond, of course, the traditional fasting, praying, and giving alms, which I assume you already know about! Very few of us can simply drop out of our everyday routine and focus entirely on spiritual things to prepare for Easter. We have to live our everyday lives while still somehow preparing ourselves for the most holy and solemn and meaningful three days of the entire year. How do we pull that off?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Loïc LLH, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

You’re supposed to fail at Lent

The dew is off the rose, now, Lent-wise.

Whatever sacrifices we embraced or extra devotions we decided to take on, the novelty has worn off, and we have probably found ourselves failing. Maybe we even made a point of saying that this year was going to be different, and yet here it is: Not.

I have some good news for you. You’re supposed to fail at Lent.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: photo by Chris Waits via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party, 2022: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK

I forgot to write up this year’s Mandatory Lent Film Party plans! Thanks to a few readers for reminding me.

On Fridays in Lent,  our family watches some edifying, well-made films, with at least a loosely spiritual theme, preferably one that we probably wouldn’t otherwise get around to seeing.

In past years, I’ve done short reviews for the movies we watched. My past lists are here (2021) and here (2020), and you can find the individual movie reviews under the tag Lent Film Party. I will also link them separately at the end of this post. 

Here’s our list of possibilities for this year:

SAINT PHILIP NERI: I PREFER HEAVEN 

THE SECRET OF KELLS

OF GODS AND MEN

TREE OF LIFE

THE WAY 

SILENCE 

THE CHOSEN

THE YOUNG MESSIAH

MOLOKAI

THE JEWELER’S SHOP

THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK

THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC

A HIDDEN LIFE

KEYS TO THE KINGDOM

We’ve already watched three movies this Lent: Fiddler on the Roof, The Scarlet and the Black, and The Secret of Kells. I’ll do quickie reviews for the first two here, but I want to write up The Secret of Kells separately. 

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971)

100% stands up. I’ve seen this movie countless times, and it just gets better. We ended up watching it over two nights, because it’s three hours long (it has an intermission, so you can split it up easily). 

This show is a masterclass in how to sustain a metaphor without wielding it like a club.  Tevye openly tells the audience right from the beginning that “every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking our necks” — and then he proceeds to work out what that means himself, throughout the rest of the movie. At the end, he invites the fiddler (sans roof), with a nod of his head, to come along with them to whatever’s next, and as he trudges forward with his load, he follows the music. So you see that his story is not over. Oh, it’s so good. Every element is perfect, the songs, the casting, the choreography, the dialogue, the cinematography, the pacing. 

It’s the story of a Jewish family in a tiny shtetl in Russia at the turn of the century, trying to maintain their identity despite cultural pressure from a swiftly changing world, and also from overt attacks in the form of pogroms. This movie shows more or less the story of my family, on both my parents’ sides. But it will feel personal to other viewers, as well, to see the Russians suddenly and senselessly descending on their neighbors. Different era, similar pointless horror and betrayal. 

Early in the movie, when Tevye has agreed to marry his oldest daughter to the butcher, they go to a tavern together and drink “to life,” and their jubilant toast is joined by a crowd of Russian soldiers. Normally the two groups keep to themselves, but not tonight. The choreography here illustrates so much tension and menace and emotion. Is it an invitation, or a threat? (Which, by the way, is the question Tevye has to ask himself throughout the whole story.)

Tevye is cautious but doesn’t want to be cowardly or cold, so he accepts the challenging invitation to dance in the Russian style, and as he’s caught up in it he shouts, “I like it!” But he almost immediately learns that good will is not enough. The next scene that shows dancing, at his daughter’s wedding, starts out with such jubilation, and ends in ruin, shattering devastation. And there is nothing to do but, as Tevye roars out into the darkness, “Clean up.”

I don’t really know how it hit the kids, although I definitely heard some weeping from the couch. I was glad they saw how Tevye speaks so naturally and constantly to God, and I was glad they saw how parents struggle and suffer while trying to figure out the balance between accepting changes they don’t like or understand because they love their kids and can’t really control them anyway, and holding the line for what’s really important. It’s not as easy as it looks! When Tevye is trying to work out whether or not he can see his way to making sense of his third daughter’s relationship, he says with a crack in his voice, “If I try to bend that far, I’ll break,” and I think even a teenage daughter who thinks her overbearing parents are unreasonable ogres will see that this man is really trying, and really suffering. (I definitely did, as a teenage daughter of a sometimes ogreish father.)

The kids were resistant to watching this movie because they remember it as a huge downer, but it truly isn’t. It doesn’t shy away from tragedy, but it’s also extremely funny, and tender, and sweet, and it ends, improbably, with hope. My Lenten wish for you is that you watch this movie.

We rented it for $3.99 on Amazon prime. It’s available to rent or buy on many platforms. Worth owning and rewatching. 

The second movie we watched for Lent was: 

THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK (1983)

Currently available to stream free on a few platforms and for rent on several more.

Synopsis: The true story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who uses clever ruses, trickery, and brazen courage to organize an effort that hid and saved the lives of thousands of Jews and escaped POWs in Nazi-occupied Rome. 

Here’s a trailer:

Terrible trailer that kind of does justice to the movie, which we all found underwhelming. At 2 hours and 23 minutes, it was made for TV, and it does not translate well into a single night of viewing. There are many extraneous scenes of people talking vehemently to each other across a desk or on the phone. The repetition may have been necessary to keep the TV viewer up to speed across several episodes, but it turns the movie into a bit of a slog. 

For a movie that takes place partially inside the Vatican with a monsignor for a hero, I found it weirdly secularized. The priests who are martyred die explicitly for the people, which sounds good, but I dunno, you’d think they’d mention something vaguely spiritual while facing a death squad! I have only seen the movie once, but no portrayal or prayer or faith in God stands out, and they all seem to be relying on sweaty masculine vigor and cunning, rather than ever on grace. I understand making a religious story accessible to a general audience, but this was a pretty egregious case of Jesusectomy, except for literally the last five minutes and the little written epilogue that appears on the screen.

Tell me if I’m being unfair. It’s not that I expected it to be one kind of movie, and was disappointed that it was a different kind. It was that the final scene was extremely powerful … and completely unearned by the previous two hours. I’d pay good money for a remake that starts with what happens at the end, and then spends the movie explaining what led up to that. Instead, it was a dated, somewhat plodding adventure movie with priests, with a tacked-on religious finale that appears out of nowhere. Tell me if I’m being unfair. 

It was a pretty good historical antidote to the myth that the Church just sat on its hands and made nice with the Nazis (or even that the pope was an antisemite — a view which even the author of Hitler’s Pope has recanted); but it still soft balled what actually happened. It portrayed Pius XII as an overly cautious political player who was mainly concerned with staying safely neutral and not making things worse, but had a thing or two to learn from this bold monsignor, who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. In fact, the Vatican saved tens of thousands of Jews or more through numerous secret means. Could and should they have done more, or done things differently? I don’t know. The facts are still being sorted through and analyzed. One thing I tell my kids often is that, if someone tells you history is simple and straightforward, they’re either stupid or lying. 

I guess I give the movie a B- overall. It wasn’t exciting enough to be a wartime adventure movie (there was only one attempted stabbing in a shadowy Vatican hallway, followed by a punching and a shooting! There should have been one every twenty minutes!), but it didn’t have enough spiritual or even interior content to justify the ending. 

So the next week, I chose something completely different: The Secret of Kells, which I hadn’t seen before. And I’ll review that next! 

Here’s the direct links to previous Lent Film Party Reviews from last year:

Fatima

The Song of Bernadette

Ushpizin

Calvary (This one is a podcast and it’s currently only open to Patreon patrons)

And I guess that’s all we got to last year, although I feel like I’m forgetting something. 

From the year before:

I Confess

The Robe

The Trouble With Angels

Babette’s Feast

Lilies of the Field

Bonus review:

The Passion of the Christ

 

 

 

Sorrow yields a harvest

I was struck hard by some lines I’ve heard hundreds of times:

Although they go forth weeping,
carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing,
carrying their sheaves.

It’s meant to be a comforting, encouraging, rousing verse, stirring us to hope because the children of Jerusalem “are remembered by God.” Today I found it comforting because I recalled what a universal experience it is, to “go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown.”

Oh, how well we know about this. How well everyone who has ever worked has felt that sense of working and weeping, trudging in to the fields with your seeds and your tools, and also the burden of the sorrows of work itself.

There are so many sorrows that go along with work. That’s just how it is, so much of the time. There’s the sorrow of working when you’d much rather rest. The sorrow of working and knowing nobody appreciates it. The sorrow of working and feeling completely inadequate to the job.

There’s the sorrow of working and knowing you’re unlikely to be there to see the job completed. The sorrow of working and wondering if anything will come of your efforts, or if you’re just burying seeds in the dark, and that’s the last anyone will ever see of them. The sorrow of working and knowing someone else is likely to get the credit. The sorrow of working and knowing you need help, and knowing you’re unlikely to get it. 

There’s the sorrow of working and wondering if you’re doing it right, or possibly doing the opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing. The sorrow of wondering if everything you do is going to be undone as soon as you let your guard down.

I was struck, as I say, by the verse in part just because it is so familiar to me. I’ve heard it so many times, in so many contexts, it suddenly hit home that its very familiarity means that it’s a universal experience. It’s not a sign that I’m defective or lazy or on the wrong track. This is just what work is like.

If work were always enjoyable and fulfilling, and we were always confident and and capable and always got immediately rewarded for our efforts, it wouldn’t be work at all; it would be recreation. But work — I mean the things we would never choose to do, but must do because of who we are — carries with it its burden of sorrow, confusion, uncertainty, guilt, resentment, fear, weariness, and grief. That’s just what work is like, much of the time. This is true for everybody.

And there’s more.

It’s also true for everybody that work brings with it rejoicing, eventually, most especially work that is done in Jesus’ name. And by that I mean any kind of work that you do because you must, and then when you pat the cold soil back into place over the dry little seed, you tell God, “This is now yours.”

I believe that kind of work will bring a harvest even when I can barely muster up the memory of how it feels to rejoice.  I believe that “they shall come rejoicing, bringing in their sheaves” is a universal experience of joy, just as work is a universal experience of sorrow. And I believe that joy plays out in as many ways as work plays out in sorrow. I do remember. It has happened to me, and I believe it will happen again.

I believe because God is literally promising this to us. He couldn’t be more clear. As many kinds of sorrow as there are, there will be ten times more kinds of rejoicing, because that is what work is like, too: It’s the kind of thing that yields a harvest. Sorrow — the sorrow of work, and maybe all kinds of sorrow — yields a harvest. Sweat and tears water the ground for the harvest, because the earth is not always a grave. We know this. Things that are buried do not always stay that way.

God has promised this. Jesus has modeled this. He has told us so, over and over and over again. This is how we unite ourselves with him: Be willing to work. Be there for the burying, and there will be rejoicing.

But to get a harvest, you must work. To get a harvest, you must wait.  

A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on February 13, 2022.

What’s for supper? Vol. 285: Best I can do is no lobster

Every year, I tell the kids how strict the orthodox are in Lent, compared to us. No meat, no fish, no dairy, no cheese, no eggs, no oil on Fridays and most but not all Wednesdays, no brown or yellow or oblong grains, no oily fishies, and very few whiskered or blue-eyed mammals on the final week, which is known as Full On Horrendoustide. You can eat wax. I researched this rigorously and I don’t want to hear about it. The upshot is we westerners have it very easy, with our little meatless Fridays, and I also don’t want to hear about that. So every year I give my little speech, and then I go ahead and cook like I always do throughout Lent, except I feel bad about it. I try to avoid lobster, even if it’s on sale, which it is not. 

So here’s what we ate this week:

SATURDAY
I don’t know. Oh, Saturday was Corrie’s birthday, so we had calzones. I feel like I already wrote about this. I’m confused. Here is a picture on my phone that says “Saturday” on it:

My little cupcake. Now she is seven. 

SUNDAY
Beef stroganoff on skinny egg noodles

But her birthday was a different day from her party. Was the party Sunday, then? I’m so confused! I think the party was Saturday, but I did the food post on Monday, so I included Saturday’s food? Anyway, Damien cooked on Sunday. He used a Deadspin recipe for stroganoff and it came out fragrant and luxuriously creamy with very tender strips of beef.

But he forgot-a the mushrooms! These things happen. Still delicious. There was some kind of run on regular noodles and there were none to be found, so we had fancy skinny noodles. Don’t tell the ecumenical patriarch. (Actually it wasn’t even Lent yet by this point.)

MONDAY
Tacos al pastor with pico de gallo

I’ve tried a few different recipes for tacos al pastor, and I like this one the best. It takes a bit of work on the front end (you have to blister up the guajillo chilis, then de-seed them, then simmer them

before adding them to the marinade, which itself has quite a few ingredients, especially if you have to make a substitute for achiote paste, which I did).

I complain, but I will admit, I adore spending a morning making a marinade. If I have nothing else to do and there aren’t a lot of people climbing over me making mountains of toast and complaining about the kind of popcorn I got, it’s so pleasant, simply messing around in the kitchen.

I also made a big bowl of pico de gallo, although I forgot to buy any peppers, so it was just tomatoes, onions, lime juice, kosher salt, and cilantro. Actual recipe:

Jump to Recipe

Here’s how pico de gallo should look, if you’re not lazy:

I, however, got lazy and did it in the food processor, so it was a little pulpier than necessary, but still sharp and tasty. 

We got a big dump of snow, so we’re still cooking exclusively indoors. When it was time to cook, I got a big skillet nice and hot with oil and cooked the marinated meat in batches, to make sure it got a little bit seared, rather than basically simmering due to being squished.

The pineapple juice in the marinade made it so tender.

While I was cooking the meat, I broiled the chunks of pineapple on an oiled pan right up under the broiler, and heated up a stack of tortillas. My land, it was all so tasty. I can never get over what wonderful things happen to pineapple with a little high heat, the hot nectary insides right under the delicate trim of char. Amazing.

The marinade is not too spicy, just kind of smoky and warming. It was a popular dish altogether, and so pretty. 

Tacos al pastor is one of my favorite Mexican dishes (and it apparently has a Lebanese shawarma influence, so that’s no surprise).

I wanted some lime cilantro rice to go with it, but we were low on rice. It was really a fully satisfying meal on its own, though, with some sour cream and cilantro thrown on top of the meat and pineapple and pico de gallo.

Your choice of corn chips or lime plantain chips on the side. Good stuff.

TUESDAY
Actual Restaurant

Fat Tuesday! We’re terrible at Mardi Gras. Nobody around here is doing anything remotely debauched, and nobody in this house would be excited about pancakes, so we went out to eat. Appetizers and everything! Corrie only went under the table one time. I got a bunch of photos of the teenagers looking away with an annoyed expression, so I’ll spare you those. 

I decided to go ahead and have a steak, which turned out to be so huge, I could only eat half (I had the second half for lunch on Thursday). And a very fat Tuesday was had by all. 

WEDNESDAY
Marcella Hazan’s red sauce on spaghetti

It was suggested to the cook that, because it was Ash Wednesday, we could just go ahead and open a jar of Aldi spaghetti sauce, but it was counter- suggested that just because it’s a penitential day doesn’t mean we have to eat dirt. So in the interest of family harmony, we had Marcella Hazan’s miraculous three-ingredient sauce, and it was, of course, wonderfully savory and delicious.

Jump to Recipe

I would say the penance came in when I could only have one helping, but actually I went back for another little scoop because nobody stopped me.

THURSDAY
Grilled ham and cheese, Pringles

Nothing to report. Fell asleep sitting up on the couch, and then Corrie came down after bedtime, sobbing because there are three kinds of matter and they all take up space, but what about the ones that donnnnnn’t? People think they want smart kids, but this is a mistake. 

FRIDAY
Fish burgers, french fries, broccoli slaw

I just got some frozen breaded fish and and some fresh dill, and I guess we’ll have fish burgers with some kind of homemade tartar sauce, assuming I can stay awake. I don’t seem to have a broccoli slaw recipe saved, but I like it with all kinds of stupid things in it, sunflower seeds and dried cranberries and all kinds of bird food that nobody else wants. I’m sure they’ll all be gracious about it, and so will I, I’m sure. And a blessed Horrendoustide to you. 

 

 

Pico De Gallo

quick and easy fresh dip or topping for tacos, etc.

Ingredients

  • 2 large tomatoes, diced
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced OR 1/2 serrano pepper
  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1/8 cup lime juice
  • dash kosher salt

Instructions

  1. Mix ingredients together and serve with your favorite Mexican food

Marcella Hazan's tomato sauce

We made a quadruple recipe of this for twelve people. 

Keyword Marcella Hazan, pasta, spaghetti, tomatoes

Ingredients

  • 28 oz can crushed tomatoes or whole tomatoes, broken up
  • 1 onion peeled and cut in half
  • salt to taste
  • 5 Tbsp butter

Instructions

  1. Put all ingredients in a heavy pot.

  2. Simmer at least 90 minutes. 

  3. Take out the onions.

  4. I'm freaking serious, that's it!

Go ahead, give up chocolate for Lent

An old woman asked a young girl—her name was Cassidy, if I remember right—what she planned to give up for Lent. Cassidy said she was going to give up popcorn.

“Popcorn!” the old woman scoffed. Pathetic! In her day, girls used to do real penances, make real sacrifices, she said. Cassidy should give up all desserts, at least. Or chocolate. When she was a child, she gave up chocolate, she said.

Cassidy mumbled that her dad would make her popcorn every night and she ate it while they watched basketball on the couch together. It actually sounded like a large and meaningful sacrifice, but the old woman’s message had hit home. Her Lenten practice was not good enough. It was childish, not meaningful.

The moral of this story? If someone asks you what you’re giving up for Lent, run away!

Or, an even better moral: When you’re deciding what to do for Lent, be childlike, not childish.

Here’s what I mean. When someone argues “Don’t just give up chocolate for Lent” they are using shorthand for the idea that giving up some little food treat is a cheap and childish way to sneak through the season. They’re saying that it means we’re just checking off the “sacrifice” box and skating by, and if we expect some kind of true spiritual growth, we should be seeking something more meaningful and profound. Rather than giving up chocolate or something else, we should be adding something, some spiritual practice, some good works, some new and challenging way of approaching the day or each other or God.

And this may be true. Sometimes when people “just give up chocolate for Lent,” it’s because they’re doing the easy, thoughtless thing. Sometimes it makes sense for us to urge each other to dig a little deeper, look a little harder at our spiritual lives, and think a little longer about what the Lord is asking from us.

But this year, in particular, feels different. And I think it calls for a different approach.

We’ve all been through the wringer, in one way or another. Lots of people have had their faith shaken, and we may find ourselves facing Lent 2022 with especially low enthusiasm and especially ramped up cynicism. Many of us are grieving. Many of us are physically healing, or still suffering. It has been a soul-crushing, exhausting time of constant risk assessment, constant weighing of expectations against reality and the constant wretched need to question other people’s trustworthiness—all while still trying to keep alive some spark of hope and good will toward our fellow man. When is the last time it hasn’t been Lent? And now you’re telling me I need to impose some new wound, this time self-inflicted?

That’s how I feel. But in my heart of hearts, I know that is not what Lent is meant to be. So I find it helpful to ask myself, when I’m discerning some spiritual practice: Is this childish? Or is it childlike?

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image by Marco Verch via Flickr (Creative Commons

Lent Film Review #3: SONG OF BERNADETTE (and why it’s so much better than FATIMA)

Last Friday we watched The Song of Bernadette (1943) as film #3 in our Lent Film Party series. You can check out my previous reviews for Fatima and Ushpizin

I’ve avoided Song of Bernadette all my life because I expected a hokey, Sound of Music-style Hollywood spirituality that would actually be bad for my kids to see. But although the movie is clearly a product of the 40’s, it doesn’t feel dated. I actually loved it, and most of the kids thought it was good (if a little long).

Don’t get me wrong: 14-year-old Bernadette (Jennifer Jones) looks like a young starlet, not an asthmatic peasant; and Mary is a luminous statue come to life. But it’s a solid story, the pacing is great, and the dialogue and characters are engaging. It includes a surprising amount of mild but genuinely funny comedy, and it’s shot with gorgeous framing and some sweet work with light and shadow. And it’s allowed to be disturbing, as a movie about an apparition ought to be.

They wisely don’t get very close to Mary, or keep the camera on her long. Instead, they show Bernadette’s brilliant face as Mary speaks, and Jones seems filled with real delight as she listens. I struggled at first with Jones’ anaconda smile, but quickly accepted it as part of the character’s radical simplicity and un-self-awareness. She speaks in a breathy, innocent voice which gets a little tiresome, but only a little — possibly because her character is very simple, and also because the story doesn’t hang only on her character.

And here is where we begin to see the real reasons Bernadette endures, but Fatima, which strove so hard to avoid gooey, religious Hollywood piety, ends up feeling dated (and in fact has a very late 90’s feel, even though it was made in 2020). The makers of Fatima clearly had Song of Bernadette memorized; but Fatima comes across as a stealth evangelization tool, not a sufficiently self-standing story, and when it aims to round itself out with some ambiguity, it ends up shooting itself in the foot. Bernadette, on the other hand, is a kickass story, and they let it speak for itself.

Song of Bernadette is a straightforward if somewhat fictionalized biographical drama. It sketches in a few telling details about the life of the impoverished Soubirous family, the town they live in, and their relationship to the Church, and then zips straight to the day of the first apparition. 

Although the story moves along briskly and Bernadette faces resistance and skepticism as she continues to see the mysterious lady, I didn’t fully feel what was at stake for the characters until the girl, at the lady’s instruction, gets down on her hands and knees. As the crowds look on in revulsion, she scrabbles around in the mud, eating it and washing her face with it. The expressions on the faces of her aunt and mother (ohh, that mother) will be familiar to any parent of a child who is good and beloved but difficult, and too different.

Filled with shame and dismay, the family leads the girl away. She’s gone too far, and it’s too much to defend. But then, long after the crowds have dispersed in disappointment, the water begins to flow. One person, and then several, realize that this is really real. It hits home that something big has happened.

Weirdly, this moment never really comes in the Fatima movie, even in the midst of the sun zooming around the sky. In Bernadette, the miracle is integrated into the story, because the story is solid and carefully crafted. In Fatima, the miracles is used like an ace in the hole, to be brought out triumphantly, trumping everything else — but it’s also bizarrely undercut by the way doubt and skepticism are shoehorned in to story. The structure just isn’t there.

The two movies diverge most tellingly in how they handle doubt. 

One of the many elements that Fatima cribbed directly from Song of Bernadette are the scenes where the secular leaders discuss the growing problem of having a seer in town. In Fatima, the dialogue is basically, “I am a politics man, harumph! I reject this backward religion which will destabilize things. But wait, maybe there’s more to it than you’d think. Who can say? Not me.”

Song of Bernadette shows a far more nuanced and entertaining look into their machinations and motivations.  It’s not high art, but these scenes are a natural part of the story, and are interesting in themselves, without that “insert political tension here” feel. This is due largely to Vincent Price and his runny nose, but the other characters are solidly acted, and function as distinct characters; and someone went to the trouble of writing actual dialogue.

Song of Bernadette gives some space to doubt: Some of the healings might possibly have happened on their own; some of the people who claim to believe it are clearly just hucksters. Much hinges on the fact that Bernadette relays the Lady’s claim that she is the Immaculate Conception, and a backward peasant who frequently misses school couldn’t possibly have independently invented that phrase; but when she’s grilled about whether she heard it before, she says only that she doesn’t remember having heard it. And Bernadette is rather disturbingly hustled off to the convent, which is presented as the right thing to do, but it’s in no way a happy ending for her. In fact, it’s where Bernadette begins to lose her untouchable innocence, and it is where her real suffering, both physical and spiritual, begins.

It is, in other words, not a nice story. Despite the Hollywoodness of it, it’s a strange and discomfiting story, and doesn’t shy away from that. 

Fatima, too, makes a stab at including some conflict and doubt, but it doesn’t arise naturally from the story. After introducing genuine angst and turmoil between mother and daughter, in particular, they resolve it instantaneously in a very Hollywoody turn: The sun dances, Lucia was right, and mother and daughter are reconciled.

This is just cheesy. But what’s really unforgivable is how Fatima attempts to insert a quasi-intellectual ambiguity into the story — not as an integral part of the story, but by setting up but not fleshing out some alleged conflict between faith and reason. Fatima makes much of the physical barrier between the elderly, cloistered Lucia and her secular interrogator; but the conversation they have is stilted and flaccid, and feels extraneous to the story they just showed us in living color. 

In Song of Bernadette, the primary cynic is not a disbeliever, but another nun who envies Bernadette and can’t get over herself. After a life of bitterness and rigidity, she is converted only when it’s revealed that Bernadette was secretly suffering excruciating pain. Although it’s played out ham-fistedly (the sister crouches and shrieks out her thoughts before a crucifix by candlelights), she’s an interesting foil to Bernadette’s simplicity because her conversion doesn’t come about when the facts are proven; it comes when she encounters something that strikes at her heart.

I think this is what Fatima was trying to show with the Old Lucia/Cynical researcher gimmick, but because it’s never integrated into the plot or even the themes of the movie, it succeeds only in undermining the rest of the story. Rather than sincere and honest admissions of doubt, the “what if” elements in Fatima feel less like sincere ambiguity and more like a legal disclaimer meant to cover the movie’s intellectual butt. 

Like Fatima, Song of Bernadette also ends with a quote: BUY WAR BONDS. This hilariously but effectively underscores exactly how solid the movie is. No fancy footwork here. It just is what it is. 

Notably, Song of Bernadette was based on a book by a Jew, and the movie was produced by David O. Selznick, not Davy O’Selznick from County Cork, you know what I mean? And the moral of that story is this: You have to trust your source material, and you have to do the work to put it across. The makers of Bernadette do.

I rate Song of Bernadette . . . one-and-a-half out of five ashes, because it’s hardly penitential at all (thanks to alert reader Magdalena who pointed out that I had my system backwards last time).

Listen, if I’m gonna be confused, everyone’s gonna be confused. 

***
Suitable for all ages. The end scene on her deathbed is fairly intense, and you may want to be at the ready to talk about scenes where the teaching nun and others are harsh with Bernadette. 

We rented it for $3.99 on Amazon Prime. Here is where you can rent this movie

Eve Tushnet, always worth reading, has a neat take that frames Song of Bernadette as a classic horror movie. Tell me what you think!

Doing nothing for Lent

I’ve been awfully busy lately. Even on a lazy day, I’m busy busy busy, accomplishing this, working hard at avoiding that, distracting myself with this, putting a lot of effort into putting off thinking about that, praying this devotion, avoiding that one. In between activities, I was scrolling through Facebook on my distraction machine, and came across a short essay that smacked me right between the eyes: A Not-So-Radical Proposal for Your Lenten Season: Do Nothing.

The author, Jake Braithwaite, SJ, describes how his life was jam packed with busyness. And he was busy doing good things: working, studying, spending time with friends. But, he says:

“When the rare slow moment came I would be overwhelmed by the range of emotions that might overtake me: wounds I’d let fester, exhaustion I’d ignored, difficult moments I’d refused to process.

“Where had all this been hiding? Had it been here all along?”

He says:

“When starting to discern becoming a Jesuit, I was forced to take more time outside of my routine to pray. For me, the revelation of silent prayer was that I wanted something different than the life that, on the surface, was quite satisfying. I realized that part of the reason I filled every waking moment with activity was that I didn’t want to listen to that voice that was calling me in a different direction.”

This isn’t exclusively the problem of a young man discerning his vocation. This is my problem. I know what my vocations are (mother, wife, writer), but it’s very possible to do all the right things according to your station in life, and still not feel entirely present in it, because you never stop doing what you do, and just be who you are. 

I hear how clichéd that sounds. It sounds like a poster in the waiting room of someone who smells like patchouli. But the danger of always doing, without ever just being, is very real. If you don’t believe me, then think how hard it is to stop doing the things you do, and just be the person you are, even for five minutes, in front of God. 

It’s hard, very hard to do. Even when we’ve turned off exterior distractions — internet, music, TV, podcasts, physical business — it’s hard to stop the mental wheel. I’ve spent entire hours literally, physically in front of Jesus at adoration, and I don’t even realize until the time is almost up that I’ve spent the whole time jabbering spiritually away, trying to phrase things right so I trap the Lord into giving me an answer or experience I can stuff in my pocket and take home with me. Or at least to fill up the time, because I feel like that’s what I’m here to do: To fill up time. To do something, rather than just to be something. 

He’s not mad at me, when I do this. He’s still glad I’m there. But I think He’s also patiently waiting for me to shut up for a minute so He can do His thing. So He can be His thing. So He can just be God, and I can be who I am, in front of God.

We resist this — or at least I do — because we are afraid. I’m afraid God will tell me that I’m not good enough, or that I need to change something radically. Or maybe I’m afraid there will be nothing, which means — what? That God doesn’t have anything to say. Or maybe He does, but not to me. At very least, I’m afraid that, when I settle and be still, the things I half-know about myself will stop flittering around my head and will land.

But I’ll tell you what, I’m also afraid of living the rest of my life disjointed from myself, with my body and soul out of synch, building my day out of layer upon layer of camouflage, always scampering around like a monkey in front of God and calling that a life. It’s exhausting. I’m tired of it. I’m so tired. 

Braithwaite describes spending time walking in a city alone. He says:

“With long days to walk and think, I was able to sort out the parts of my life where God was most active and the parts where it was hard to find God. As Ignatius puts it, I was able to name the consolations and the desolations.

“I noticed the parts of my life–even the challenging ones–that left me feeling energized and alive. On the other hand, I noticed the parts of my life–even the surface-level happy ones–that left me feeling empty and dry and used up.

“I didn’t solve everything in my strolling, but I started to notice some patterns. I was finally able to hear God’s voice because the noise was turned down. I couldn’t block it out with the distractions–parties and drinking and social media and to-do lists and podcasts and music and movies and shows and idle fretting about work—that were my preferred methods.

“Instead, I just had to be present to exactly what I was feeling at each moment. If I was sad, I just had to be sad for a bit. If I was excited, I just got to experience it rather than try to share it on an online profile. If I was worried, I lived through the worry instead of numbing it.”

Reading this, I thought to myself, “THAT PUNK!” Because he goes on to encourage us to take quiet walks through our own neighborhoods, to let the still, small voice of the Lord speak to us about who we are. Who has time for wandering around? Not me! I have kids! I have a job! I have dinner to a make and errands to run and emails to answer.

But. I do have time when I wake up in the morning. I have a few minutes where I’m coming into consciousness, and before looking at my calendar and checking all my various notifications, I can place myself in the presence of God.

I do have time in the car when, rather than turning on music, I can have some silence.

I have time when I’m cooking, when, rather than catching up on the news on my smart speaker, I can just do what I’m doing, make what I’m making.

I have time before bed, when I can lay down my novel and think through my day, with all its nonsense and joys and mistakes and frustrations and little triumphs, and, without even analyzing or summarizing or commenting on it, I can turn it all over to the Lord before I fall asleep.

For goodness sakes, I can go to the bathroom without bringing my phone with me. I don’t mean to alarm you, but if God can speak to Elijah on Mt. Horeb, he can speak to you on the toilet. 

I don’t have aimless hours where I can wander and meditate; but I do recall that, when I seek out and lean into smaller moments throughout the day, longer spans of time do tend to open up, once I’m more open to seeing them.  

Braithwaite says:

“Rather than optimize your Lent with a waistline-conscious fast or a bold test of your willpower, simply take time each day to do nothing. Sit before the Lord, let God marvel at you as you marvel at God. Maybe even while you’re eating french fries.”

Well, I’ve tried everything else, and I’m fresh out of ideas. I guess maybe it’s time to do nothing for Lent, and see how that goes.

***

[Portions of this essay first appeared in The Catholic Weekly in February of 2020.]

 
Image: Rembrandt, Sick Woman, National Gallery of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

What’s for supper? Vol. 242: Never never mind your meatloaf heart

Sorry, I know it’s Friday in Lent, sorry. Check out my meat anyway.

SATURDAY
Pizza

Lately I make four or five large, normal pizzas, and then with the last one I just go a little bit cuh-razy. This time we had two pepperoni, two olive, one cheese, and one with red onion, fresh garlic, anchovies, and pesto ricotta. 

GOOOOD stuff. I don’t even want to eat pizza unless is has anchovies on it anymore. Get outta here.

SUNDAY
Meatloaf, roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts

Terrifically romantic, I made two meatloaves, but Valentine. Here I demonstrate my method:

 

 

I don’t know how people even survived before silicone pans. Actually I remember there was a shop in town, Eaglewood Candies, that used to rent pans. For my eleventh birthday, my mother rented a Garfield pan and spent hours following the pattern of little bloops of frosting to make the design. I hope I said thank you! I do remember her saying, “Never again.” 

Speaking of never again, here is the Raw Meatloaf with Ketchup Glaze:

And here is how it turned out after cooking:

I’ve taken to adding Worcestershire sauce to my meatloaf, and using red wine rather than milk.

Jump to Recipe

To continue or fairy tale-style Valentine’s Day, I cut a bunch of potatoes into discs and roasted them with Brussels sprouts with olive oil, honey, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and it was pretty good.

I did cook this in two pans and then combine it in one to finish cooking while the meatloaf cooked. Sometimes I can’t believe someone like me has only one oven. 

The original plan was to make deep fried potato blossoms with my onion blossom machine, but an astute reader pointed out that onions turn into blossoms when cut because they are made of rings.

 

 

 

If you cut something that’s not made of rings, it will come out less of a blossom and more of an octopus. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; but I didn’t feel a strong need to make potato octopuses for Valentine’s Day. If I do want to make pork blossoms, I would have to cut the pork into thin slabs and roll them into a spiral and then blossom them. Which I may! But not in Lent. 

We didn’t really have dessert, because the house was full of fancy foods Clara had provided for the Valentine’s Day party earlier. 

The kids also had parties at school, so I consider them well-valentined this year. 

MONDAY
Vegetable lo mein, pork pot stickers, crunchy rice rolls

The plan was chicken nuggets and chips, but I had to run to the store, and I guess it was Chinese New Year. Chinese food at Aldi is actually –well, what’s several steps worse than a crap shoot? I guess just crap. But for some reason, I took a chance on their pork pot stickers, and they were excellent. And cheap! $3.99 for 20, so I got three bags.

I deep fried them and served them with some kind of ginger sauce I had. I also got a bunch of those sweet, crunchy rice rolls they sometimes sell, and I made a big pan of lo mein with sugar snap peas, green peppers, and fresh ginger. 

Jump to Recipe

I used spaghetti for the noodles, which is not ideal because it’s not wide enough to grab up much of the sauce. But it was a tasty and poplar meal overall. I don’t know why I never thought of this, but I finally bought one of those wire ladle skimming things for deep frying, and it’s made my life SO much easier, at least when I’m deep frying. I also got a nice deep and wide Calphalon pot at the dump, and that helps, too. 

TUESDAY
Shrimp cocktail, garlic steak, bread and butter, stray lettuce

Mardi gras! Damien was in charge of the menu, so he brought home a bunch of shrimp and steaks. One kid doesn’t like steak, so he made her a bacon cheeseburger. Then . . . he fried the steaks in bacon fat, with whole garlic cloves. 

Bad picture, great steak. 

WEDNESDAY
Spaghetti, garlic bread

Ash Wednesday. I’m already doing intermittent fasting for weight maintenance, so Ash Wednesday fasting wasn’t that difficult. But I did have to say to a kid who had just sat down with a plate of hot buttered toast heaped with scrambled eggs, “Oh, hey, aren’t you 18?” and that was rough. Then we planned to eat at 5:00 and then book it to 6:00 Mass, but supper was a little late, and then I uh forgot to call one kid, so he ended up having about four minutes to eat before the Communion fast kicked in. I guess I’m just helping sanctify the whole family this year.

Then I had to take a kid to the bathroom during Mass, and that’s how I discovered I had a largish piece of parmesan cheese stuck to my eyelid. I use a fork when I eat, I swear I do. 

THURSDAY
Beef barley soup, beer bread

Soup day! I know someone who just serves soup all through Lent. I would totally go for that, but my family would murder me. I thought it was a good soup, though. I made it in the Instant Pot and the beef got really tender.

Jump to Recipe

I also made two loaves of beer bread, which is so easy (one bowl!) to make and kind of fun. Here’s a quick video. (Next time I make a food video, I’ll turn off the washing machine first. And the radio. And I’ll take the marbles out of my mouth, and eat my spaghetti with a fork.)

 

Beer bread is spongy and tender inside, with a crisp, buckled crust outside.

Jump to Recipe

The secret ingredient (besides beer) is an entire stick of melted butter poured over the top before baking. I thought the sharp, sour taste of the beer went very well with the slightly sweet, tomatoey soup. 

Clara also made a few loaves of strawberry almond bread, which was heavenly. I’ll see if I can snag her recipe. 

FRIDAY
Quesadillas, chips and salsa

And here we are back at Friday again, what do you know about that?

How do you manage Lenten meals at your house? We generally just tone things down a bit, and I avoid any lavish, extravagant meals; but I don’t push lentils or anything, or avoid cloven-hoofed meats or whatever. I always feel bad about posting food posts on Fridays in Lent, but my brain pan is absolutely full and can’t deal with figuring out something that makes more sense. 

Oh, today we begin our Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party! I guess I’ll post reviews on Monday like I did last year. Leaning toward The Keys of the Kingdom for tonight’s pick. 

Also stay tuned for our new movie podcast episode later today! In this one, we review Rocky and Hard Times, filmed within a year of each other, Sylvester Stallone’s best and maybe Charles Bronson’s, too. Both movies about fighters, but vastly different in tone and otherwise. Podcasts are available to patrons who pledge as little as a dollar a month. If you’re a patron, you should receive a link to the podcast via Patreon every time a new episode goes up.

And here are the cards de recipe for the week. 

Meatloaf (actually two giant meatloaves)

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs ground beef
  • 2 lbs ground turkey
  • 8 eggs
  • 4 cups breadcrumbs
  • 3/4 cup milk OR red wine
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

plenty of salt, pepper, garlic powder or fresh garlic, onion powder, fresh parsley, etc.

  • ketchup for the top
  • 2 onions diced and fried (optional)

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450

  2. Mix all meat, eggs, milk, breadcrumbs, and seasonings together with your hands until well blended.

  3. Form meat into two oblong loaves on pan with drainage

  4. Squirt ketchup all over the outside of the loaves and spread to cover with spatula. Don't pretend you're too good for this. It's delicious. 

  5. Bake for an hour or so, until meat is cooked all the way through. Slice and serve. 

basic lo mein

Ingredients

for the sauce

  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 5 tsp sesame oil
  • 5 tsp sugar

for the rest

  • 32 oz uncooked noodles
  • sesame oil for cooking
  • add-ins (vegetables sliced thin or chopped small, shrimp, chicken, etc.)
  • 2/3 cup rice vinegar (or mirin, which will make it sweeter)

Instructions

  1. Mix together the sauce ingredients and set aside.

  2. Boil the noodles until slightly underdone. Drain and set aside.

  3. Heat up a pan, add some sesame oil for cooking, and quickly cook your vegetables or whatever add-ins you have chosen.

  4. Add the mirin to the pan and deglaze it.

  5. Add the cooked noodles in, and stir to combine. Add the sauce and stir to combine.

 

Beef barley soup (Instant Pot or stovetop)

Makes about a gallon of lovely soup

Ingredients

  • olive oil
  • 1 medium onion or red onion, diced
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 3-4 medium carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2-3 lbs beef, cubed
  • 16 oz mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
  • 6 cups beef bouillon
  • 1 cup merlot or other red wine
  • 29 oz canned diced tomatoes (fire roasted is nice) with juice
  • 1 cup uncooked barley
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil in a heavy pot. If using Instant Pot, choose "saute." Add the minced garlic, diced onion, and diced carrot. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions and carrots are softened. 


  2. Add the cubes of beef and cook until slightly browned.

  3. Add the canned tomatoes with their juice, the beef broth, and the merlot, plus 3 cups of water. Stir and add the mushrooms and barley. 

  4. If cooking on stovetop, cover loosely and let simmer for several hours. If using Instant Pot, close top, close valve, and set to high pressure for 30 minutes. 

  5. Before serving, add pepper to taste. Salt if necessary. 

 

Beer bread

A rich, buttery quick bread that tastes more bready and less cake-y than many quick breads. It's so easy (just one bowl!) but you really do want to sift the flour.

This recipe makes two large loaf pan loaves.

Ingredients

  • 6 cups flour, sifted
  • 2 Tbsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 12-oz cans beer, preferably something dark
  • 1 stick butter

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 375

  2. Butter two large loaf pans. Melt the stick of butter.

  3. I'm sorry, but you really do want to sift the flour.

  4. In a large bowl, mix together dry ingredients, and stir in beer until it's all combined and nice and thick.

  5. Pour the batter into the loaf pans and pour the melted butter over the top.

  6. Bake for about 50 minutes until it's crusty and knobbly on top.