Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Karate Kid

"He who is attacked by the spirits of darkness needs only to apply himself vigorously to prayer and he will beat them back with great success." - Bernard of Clairvaux

The more things change, the more they stay the same. With the 2010 reboot of The Karate Kid, the same issues have come to the forefront just as they were in the 1980s versions of the series: bullying and self-discipline.

Whether it is Daniel (Ralph Macchio) and Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki "Pat" Morita) in Southern California in 1984 or Dre (Jaden Smith) and Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) in China in 2010, these themes seem to be timeless experiences from one decade to the next.

The new version of the movie opens with Dre and his mother (Taraji Henson) relocating from Detroit to Beijing - and Dre having a difficult time fitting in with his new Chinese peers. Perhaps to counter Dre's American brashness (most likely a coping mechanism for the boy), a group of young Chinese boys led by Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) decide to target Dre for bullying and intimidation - not unlike the experiences "Daniel-son" had twenty-five years earlier.

The Karate Kid movie spends a significant chunk of the film exploring Dre's experiences of loneliness, fear, frustrations, and helplessness - perhaps as a way to remind us that these emotions are not the overdramatic reactions of childhood - but that they are real and that they can have lasting effects on those who experience them.

But when all seems lost for young Dre, we get to meet Mr. Han, an unassuming janitor who swoops in at just the right moment to protect the boy from the bullies who attack him.

Not only does Han serve as a protector, but he also becomes Dre's trainer - not just for self-defence but for self-discipline. Before teaching him any fancy moves or cool kung fu, Han gives him the tools to calm his emotions and to center himself in contemplation and silence.

Whether we are a student experiencing bullying in school or an adult faced with pressures and insurmountable challenges ahead, we can all relate to Dre - and we can all use a bit of Mr. Han in our lives.

Bernard of Clairvaux, a wise monk living in the middle ages, once said, "If we know how to use the weapon of prayer well, we shall come off conquerers at last, for prayer is more powerful than all the devils." He continued, saying, "He who is attacked by the spirits of darkness needs only to apply himself vigorously to prayer - and he will beat them back with great success."

What Bernard was saying was that before we can react to our troubles - be they bullies, finances, or pressure - we must learn self-discipline. We must not conquer the situation when we are angry, upset, or frustrated; instead, we must first spend moments in quiet contemplation. This pause before action runs counter to most people's advice - but it is something that is practiced around the world and across the centuries. From Buddha to Jesus Christ, the great masters of prayer have known this incredible lesson.

If Dre reacted immediately, it would have been disastrous for everyone. It would have also led Dre to start down the path of violence for the sake of vengeance. But Mr. Han knew better. Instead, he led him up the mountaintop of prayer - and even with Dre at such a young age - he provided him the training needed to center himself and calm the storms within. Only then could he truly react to the threat that lay before him.

Let us pray that the next time we encounter trouble, we take a moment to breathe and reflect, meditate and contemplate, pray and discern. Then, as Bernard of Clairvaux has predicted, we can beat back whatever haunts us with great success. God be with you on that journey.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Toy Story 3

"When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, think like a child, and reason like a child. But when I became a man, I put aside childish things..." 1 Cor. 13:11

If you ever owned and loved a toy as a child, Toy Story 3 (just like its two predecessors) will surely move and delight you. This is a movie that can touch anyone who remembers their younger days playing with their favorite toys.

Entertainment Weekly even ran this column in a recent issue, noting the number of men (not to mention the ladies) who have shed a few tears after watching the film this summer:

Message to men: Yes, it's okay to cry at 'Toy Story 3'

So what is it that moves so many people to tears? I believe that part of the charm of these films is that they do exactly what we once did in our imagination: they give life, personality, and a backstory to cherished yet inanimate objects.

Do you remember your own favorite toy? What did you love to play with when you were younger? For me, I had a great collection of dinosaur toys. I used to play countless hours with my tyrannosaurus rex, triceratops, and stegosaurus. I recall making a pterodactyl fly off my bed and an apatosaurus thunder through my backyard.

St. Paul probably didn't have a bucket of dinosaur toys when he was a kid, but he, too, reflected nostalgically on his younger days in his Letter to the Corinthians: "When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, think like a child, and reason like a child." (1 Cor. 13:11a). When we were children, life looked a lot different. The world was in front of us and the wind was at our back. However, St. Paul continues: "But when I became a man, I put aside childish things..." (1 Cor. 13:11b).

Maybe that's why Toy Story 3 has caused so many adults to shed a few tears. Perhaps people see themselves as Andy, who in this film, has become a young adult heading off to college - "putting aside childish things."

In the movie, even the toys, especially Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), have a hard time moving on from Andy. The film takes them on an adventure through a day care center - trying desperately to get back home to those glory days of childhood. But life is moving on for everyone.

Perhaps we cry at Toy Story 3 because we regret having to move on. We miss those innocent days when we could create a whole new world with our toys. Or maybe we wish we could inject a little fun, lightheartedness, and laughter into our busy, serious, and workaholic-ridden world. When we leave the theatre after seeing this movie, we wonder if we'll ever see those days again.

Our faith teaches us that, YES... we can have that joy once more:

As teachers of the next generation, we can share the fun and laughter with someone younger than us - a child, an infant, a tween, or a teenager. Perhaps we can even play with some of the same types of toys we once loved...

If we find ourselves working long hours and feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, we must take a retreat and find time to rest (to "keep holy the Sabbath") - to laugh, to play, and to be in the company of good friends.

Should we feel the pressures of the real world closing in on us (from oil spills and sickness to economic hardships and global violence), we can escape for a moment into our imagination. St. Ignatius of Loyola encourages us to use our imagination to pray and to grow closer to God.

If you feel that your eyes watered during Toy Story 3 (or for that matter, while watching Toy Story 1 and 2), then stretch your imagination, take a Sabbath break, and/or laugh and play with those younger than you. Even though St. Paul talks about "putting aside childish things," always remember that Jesus also said, "Unless you become like children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 18:3). So find that inner child - and play, escape, and imagine once more.

Who knew that my favorite dinosaurs could lead to the kingdom. Imagine where your memories might take you, too.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Blues Brothers & The Vatican

Story of the Week: The Vatican Approves The Blues Brothers

All this week, news outlets around the world have been reporting that the Vatican's official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, has deemed the 1980 comedy classic, The Blues Brothers, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this week, a "Catholic classic."

The Vatican newspaper has dedicated several articles this week to the movie, saying that the values presented within are in keeping with Catholic tradition: raising funds for an orphanage, being dedicated to their "mission from God," taking a stance against Nazism and oppression, and even passing up the opportunity for a one-night stand (with Twiggy) to continue on their journey. One article cites Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:11-32) as a good way of looking at Joliet Jake (Jim Belushi) and Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd).

Some across the spectrum of religious and secular media have called the Vatican out because of their articles. One said that there was very little that had to do with religion in the movie. Public reaction has been mixed - and some have been disappointed in the news.

As someone who seeks and finds the Catholic and Christian elements in popular films, I have to respectfully disagree with everyone who has been saying this. The Blues Brothers reminds us that we're not saints, but we are sinners trying to keep our life's mission - to preach the Gospel, and use words if necessary - on its rightful course. Jake and Elwood aren't perfect - but they recognize that taking care of the poor and under-privledged is worth fighting for, even if it means returning to a life in prison. They exemplify the command of Jesus, "There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for another." (Jn. 15:13).

The Vatican newspaper called this journey of faith an act of "redemption obtained with sacrifice." Yes, on the way, the Blues Brothers have interesting run-in's with the law and with their pasts (such as Carrie Fisher, who plays Jake's stranded-at-the-altar former flame), which make for great comedy.

I applaud the Vatican for their foresight. To rank The Blues Brothers with the Vatican's other inspirational classics - such as The Ten Commandments, It's a Wonderful Life, Gandhi, Schinder's List, and Chariots of Fire - is a great way to highlight the Ignatian understanding that God is truly in all things. While few would argue with these other movies, having a popular comedy in the mix is evidence that God speaks to us through tears as well as laughter.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The A-Team

"I love it when a plan comes together."

This summer's reboot of The A-Team explodes into movie theatres with all the excitement and action of the original television series - and despite all the mayhem on screen, at its core, there is still a good plan.

Set in the current Iraq war, this team is a four-person "alpha squad" of special forces soldiers who have a knack for creativity in their missions - with a near-perfect success rate. It includes John "Hannibal" Smith (Liam Neeson), the leader of the group; Templeton "Faceman" Peck (Bradley Cooper), the suave public face of the operation who can acquire most anything with his charm; Bosco "B.A." Baracus (Quintan "Rampage" Jackson), the team's muscle and driver; and H.M. "Howling Mad" Murdock (Sharlto Copley), the team's pilot who is possibly insane (though we're never 100% sure).

Like the original series, the A-Team is sent to prison for a crime they didn't commit, framed by other covert operatives in the military and government - this time to secure an illegal treasury plates (with which whomever has it can produce counterfeit U.S. currency). But as we would expect, there is a bigger plan in the works: the team is able to escape from prison and embark on the journey to find the plates and, in so doing, clear their names.

Yes, there is a lot of action and explosions, noise and chaos that ensues (would you expect anything less from a movie like this, though?). But through it all, no matter how impossible the odds, what is most noticable is how Hannibal always keeps his cool and remains calm - for he knows the plans that he and his team have crafted will surely end in success.

Hannibal's calm presence and his reliance on a surefire plan was a trademark of the original television show and it's a major aspect of this summer's reboot movie. And at the end of every mission, reflecting on a job well done, Hannibal speaks his famous line, "I love it when a plan comes together."

While our own lives may not include riding an army tank plummeting to the ground or hatching a prison escape from a German mental hospital, it can sometimes seem chaotic and overwhelming. We might feel like covert military operatives are on our case, chasing us down and keeping us on the run, through our jobs, our schooling, our rat race, or even in our family.

People today are busy, living lives that resemble the complexity of The A-Team movie. But to get through the mess, to endure any suffering or anxiety, it's best to have a plan.

Laying out life goals, formulating plans for the future, and setting a direction in which to head can be a great way to make it through the chaos of everyday life. What is our plan? Where are we going? How are we getting there? If one were to respond to those questions with "I'm not sure" or "I'm waiting to see where life takes me," then getting through the hurricanes of the world can be much more dificult. Instead, taking a cue from Hannibal Smith might be a good idea.

I have found that, when life starts looking like The A-Team movie, I take time out in prayer to collect my thoughts and have a conversation with God - and in so doing, create a plan or at least a direction in which to head. There may be a lot of good options, but coming to a decision and charting a singular course can make all the difference.

When Hannibal was sent to prison, he had six months to reflect and contemplate his plan. He was able to figure out what needed to happen next to bring order to the chaos, to prove his innocence, and to do what was right for the country. In our own lives, we don't need to go to prison, but we may consider a retreat or a time of prayerful contemplation when life gets overwhelming. And in that conversation with God, we might hear what Jeremiah heard in the Hebrew Scriptures: "For I know the plans I have for you... they are plans for good and not disaster, to give you a future full of hope." (Jer. 29:11).

God knows the plan. We must also know our plan. Then in the midst of the struggle and the busyness of work, school, home, and family, we can keep our calm like Hannibal Smith. And with God by our side, we can say with confidence: "I love it when a plan comes together." Amen.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Shrek Forever After

"Though I am content, I don't even know it. I regret my life..."
Job 9:21

We have all had our share of bad days: tiring, monotonous, aggrevating, or stretched. On those days, we might feel like the ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) in Shrek Forever After.

As this film opens, Shrek is overwhelmed by his daily routine, which seemed great at the end of the last movie but now feels exhausting: waking up unexpectedly, having his privacy disrupted, needing to fix some problem somewhere, feeling nothing new or original.

This sense of unease can make anyone, ogre or human, feel desperate for an escape... but escape where? to what? and how? Shrek wanted so much to detatch - even if it was just for a little bit - but he never told anyone of his frustration until it all uncorked at his children's birthday party in front of everyone. Even though we (the audience) saw this unfolding, no one around Shrek knew where this sudden explosion came from.

With no one else to turn to now, Shrek found the only comfort in the deceptive Rumpelstiltskin (voiced by Walt Dohrn) who fooled the ogre into sacrificing his very soul in exchange for feeling a dose of the old adventurous life before the routine set in.

As time goes by in our own work, relationships, or family, things can seem stale like Shrek's life. It can even cause us to abandon the "here and now" for the "what if?" - wondering if the grass is greener on the other side. Like Job in the Hebrew Scriptures, we might tempt fate by wondering, "Though I am content, I don't even know it. I regret my life." (Job 9:21).

While this reaction to the monotony or the angst of life can be natural, if left unchecked or unattended, it might lead to broken friendships, poor work ethics, unfinished business, or even divorce and rejection. If we let the frustrations burrow under our skin - and never really tell anyone (especially those most dear to us), disaster can strike.

Like Shrek, we need to realize that our lives are and have always been an adventure, no matter how dry, boring, or horrible it might seem on a daily basis.

The grass is just as green on both sides of any situation - and thanks to the relationships we have carved out in our life, the work we have thus far accomplished, and the gifts and graces God has already blessed us with - it's actually even greener on this side.

But without communication, without talking to those who walk along us in the daily routine, the adventure might be lost. While dreaming of alternate universes we might escape to might seem fun, the isolating solitude within our own head can be the biggest antitode to our own adventure. Shrek had to learn this the hard way - and only an "escape clause" in the contract with Rumpelstiltskin could get him out of trouble. For us, our "escape clause" is our relationship with God and with those God has placed in our lives.

In fact, if escape is what we desire most, perhaps opening up to God in prayer as well as to others around us in conversation can lead to our next new adventure. Communication is truly the best medicine to the mundane or the anxiety-ridden.

That's what brought Job out of his misery; that's what Shrek had to discover in his alternate universe; and that's what all of us can do if we ever find ourselves feeling stuck in an ogre's mud pool thinking "I regret my life..." When we open up like that - to God and to one another - then we can live the adventure forever after - just like we always wanted.