Spirituality

Washington Post Praise for McCarrick in 2014 Contains an Ironic Comment by Pope Francis

Deal W. Hudson

September 4, 2018

When Pope Francis refused to comment on the letter by Archbishop Vigano enumerating his cover-up of ex-Cardinal’s sexual abuse, the public was bemused, if not angered. Now the Holy Father has explained the reason for his refusal — it’s too mystical to talk about.

In his Monday homily at Casa Santa Marta, Pope Francis pronounced, “the truth is humble, the truth is silence.” At first glance, this is strange comment given the issues at hand — charges he ignored the criminal past of McCarrick and sanctions imposed by Pope Benedict XVI that McCarrick that end his public ministry. 

How can the truth be ‘silence’ on these charges? Pope Francis either did, or his didn’t know about McCarrick’s actions.  

Yet, Pope Francis goes further, he identifies this claim with the virtue of humility — “truth is humble.” What is he recommending here? Perhaps he believes that anyone possessing truth should never express it publicly? He may have in mind the humility described by St. Thomas Aquinas, which, “Consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior” (Summa Contra Gent., bk. IV, ch. lv.).  

However, Pope Francis would be contradicting himself according to St. Thomas — his notion of humility would imply the Pope does not know if Vigano’s charges are true or not. The Pope, however, would not not be going outside of “one’s bounds” in addressing the charges: Pope Francis knows the answers, and he won’t say anything about them. Why? Because, presumably, the truth is humble and silent.

Even more strange is how the Pope concocted his description of truth from Luke 4:16-30. In this passage, Jesus begins his ministry by visiting the Synagogue in Nazareth where he reads a passage from Isaiah and concludes, “This day is fulfilled this scripture in your ears, adding, “ Amen I say to you, that no prophet is accepted in his own country.” When the crowd was angered and wanted to throw him out of the city, “he passed through the midst of them and went away.” 

The passage does not mention Jesus’s silence, rather Pope Francis infers it and bases his entire commentary on it. In doing so, the Pope is comparing himself to Jesus under attack for his claim that he represents the prophecy of Isaiah.  How is that a fair comparison? In the passage from Luke, Jesus had just proclaimed the truth about himself — he did not remain silent, he spoke the truth aloud, and it provoked the anger against him! 

Yet, Pope Francis ignores what Jesus said and focusses on his supposed silence after he had spoken to those in the Temple. The Pope, evidently, thinks Jesus was able to pass “through the midst of them” because he remained silent. Didn’t those in the Temple just see him and identify him while he was speaking? “Isn’t he Joseph’s son?”

It doesn’t make any sense to credit a supposed silence for Jesus getting away from the crowd when it was his speaking that aroused the crowd in the first place.  Clearly, for Jesus Christ, the truth is NOT found in silence. 

So what does Pope Francis really mean? Those familiar with the Catholic traditions of spirituality will know that ‘silence’ has a privileged place. As with the celebrated “silence” of St. Thomas, it denotes that boundary between what the mind can grasp, conceptual, and discuss and the supernatural reality that exceeds its power.  

St. Thomas Aquinas stopped working on his Summa Theologiae after telling his longtime secretary Reginald of Piperno, “After what I have seen today I can write no more: for all that I have written is but straw.”

Remaining in silence about what lies beyond the power of the mind, about a vision of the Divine, is revered in the tradition of Christian, and non-Christian, mysticism. 

What do the facts about the McCarrick scandal have to do with mysticism, with the silence provoked by an encounter with the supernatural? Pope Francis’s attempt to play a mystical trump card would be laughable if it were not so pathetic.  

One can imagine those hearing it on Monday at the Casa Santa Marta: the groupies present would start tearing up, others would scratch there heads, while others would be thinking, “How can he equate an experience of God with the facts about McCarrick’s sexual abuse of young men and boys?”

What’s next? Will all Catholic clergy be given the command – “the truth is silence” – regarding Archbishop Vigano’s letter about Pope Francis?

Remembering My Father — How John Wayne Grew Old

Deal W. Hudson

June 6, 2018

He was the strongest man I ever knew. He had will-power of iron. The doctor said to stop smoking. After that day he never smoked another cigarette. Years later a different doctor banned alcohol—not another drink passed his lips for more than thirty years. Of all the money he inherited from his mother and aunt, not a penny of these assets was spent on himself; all of it was saved and reinvested for his three children. Heart failure and a stroke put him in a hospital bed. I went to his bedside in Houston, where I cut up his dinner and placed it in his mouth, piece by piece.

I guess you could call my dad part of the Saving Private Ryan generation. Fresh out of Texas in his early twenties, a captain in the Army Air Corps, he flew his missions over Germany and Yugoslavia and, I was told by my mother, never lost a man. Dad never talked about the war, but over the years it became clear his soul had suffered much from the experience. After seeing the Spielberg movie, and listening to the reaction of many World War II veterans, it was also clearly an emotional catharsis of sorts had been long overdue for them.

I took the occasion of that film for my daughter, Hannah, and I to interview him about his war experience. Dad seemed finally ready to talk about those years where every morning these young men wondered if they would survive another day. No wonder, he said, they all learned how to drink, pretty hard. His best story was about his plane being shot down in Yugoslavia and the local women who hid the flyers in hay wagons until they were rescued.

I already knew that story because a few months earlier providence had arranged for Dad to play golf with my friend and Crisis supporter, the late Jim Matthews. On the 18th hole, I noticed that Jim and my father were still on the tee by the time I reached my ball in the fairway.  When they arrived at the green, I asked why they were dragging behind. My father looked up from the ground with a look on his face I had never seen. “Remember that story about being picked up after being shot down in Yugoslavia? Jim, was the pilot of that plane.” The last few words were almost inaudible because my father, this strong man, was choking with emotion.

Age did not diminish Dad’s will-power. In the summer of 1998, I went to Rockport, Maine, to play with him in a two-day golf tournament at the local country club. This had become a yearly ritual for us—we had never played that well but we knew we were running out of time, and we were determined to make a good showing.

Dad was 78 that summer but still a solid mid-80s player. He loved to make putts under pressure. After making them, he would almost dance to the hole to pick up the ball.

After the first day’s scramble format, we were in the lead. We always liked scrambles, where you pick the best shot and play from there since I usually drove well and Dad has always been an extraordinary putter. The second day was the best-ball of our twosome, meaning we choose the best of our two scores in each hole. I played well for about 13 holes but then started to fall apart. My trusty driver was letting me down. We knew we were probably in the lead for the championship flight but could not afford a single bad hole.

To this day I have no idea how he summoned the strength. While I looked for my lost game, Dad parred the last five holes, making all the putts required of him. We had been teaming together since I was eleven, and now father and son had finally won a golf tournament.

Two weeks later, at a hospital in Houston, my father was told he suffered from congestive heart failure, and his heart was pumping only 20 percent of the blood his body needed. How did he do it at Rockport? These men from ‘the greatest generation’ had guts, a courage acquired in the midst of the ultimate self-sacrifice — fighting against tyranny that threated the freedom of nations and peoples, country, a cause that outweighed their need for home, family, and their very lives.

Many readers, I am sure, have been down this road of watching a father, or a mother, become child-like through the ravages of age and disease. I was once told losing a father is like standing in a clearing where all of a sudden the last row of trees are blown away and you feel a storm smacking you in the face. I have gone back to that image many times to understand the strange reversal of roles. My father died not long after, I felt the force of the wind rising against me.

At his burial service in Austin, I felt conflicted because my admiration for my father was mixed with bitterness over years of conflict with him over finances and my choice of occupation. Much to my regret, my eulogy did not do him justice. I described his ‘toughness’ more as a rebuke of how he treated me than the making of a man who was born in the Depression, who lost his father at age 12, who loved breaking horses, who was part of the Corps at Texas A&M, and who captained a B-24 over Europe in his early twenties.

Since his death nearly twenty years ago, I have thanked him in my heart hundreds of times for the strength and perseverance he passed on to me. Not everyone is given that gift by their parents. And, when given, it’s a gift rarely wrapped in a pretty package. My father cared little about packaging of any kind, only what’s underneath, what could be called character.

For all this, as Father’s Day once again approaches, I am grateful. I pray I have passed on some of his patrimony to my two children, with, perhaps, some kinder packaging.

Aretha Franklin, witness to the Gospel

Deal W. Hudson

May 16, 2019

Amazing Grace is one of the greatest concert movies of all time

In January 1972, Aretha Franklin travelled to Los Angeles to join her good friend Pastor James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir to record a gospel album. That album, entitled Amazing Grace, went on to become the bestselling gospel recording of all time.

Warner Brothers sent director Sydney Pollack to film the recording sessions in the New Bethel Baptist Church with a live audience. At the time, Pollack was a veteran television director but had only a few films to credit. Pollack forgot to use clappers between the songs, creating such difficulty in synchronising the video with the sound that he gave up on finishing it.

In 2007, as Pollack was dying, he gave all the material to producer/composer Alan Elliot. More than a decade later, Amazing Grace, the documentary, has finally been finished and released. The result is a sensation – Amazing Grace deserves to stand beside the greatest concert films of all time, such as Monterrey Pop (1968) and The Last Waltz (1978). What distinguishes Amazing Grace from the rest is the music and the performer: This is not the pop star Aretha of the late 60s; this is the Aretha who grew up singing gospel songs.

When she sings old black gospel songs like Precious Lord, which she sang at Martin Luther King’s funeral, there’s an emotional connection between herself, the choir and the audience that’s both soulful and joyful, the joy of overcoming the pain and sadness of the historic black community in America. For many fans of gospel singing, Aretha’s voice contained a purity that has few precursors and no successors.

By 1972, Aretha had become a revered figure in the black community. Her pop music captured the generation: civil rights, sexual revolution, the decline of the black male and the ascendancy of the black woman. For black women, she has been a rock of stability and a source of inspiration to face the crumbling of black culture. It’s no accident that 1972 was the year the movie Super Fly, an exaltation of black pimps, was released.

But Amazing Grace is a return to her roots, and her performance is breathtaking. Aretha combines perfect musicianship with a modest, almost placid, presence punctuated by flights into the gospel ether. Her eyes are often closed, and when her improvisation starts a layered ascent, her face turns upward reaching the fullness of jubilation. At these moments, you are made to realise this is not another performance for her but an act of her witnessing about Jesus Christ.

Pastor James Cleveland accompanies on the piano with grand bravado, choral director Alexander Hamilton was Dudamel long before Dudamel, and the Southern California Cathedral Choir make a funky entrance that made me want to cheer.

Deal Hudson is the Catholic Herald’s arts editor

When Elgar turned to the Druids

Deal W. Hudson

April 11, 2019

The conductor Martyn Brabbins and Hyperion have given us the second complete recording of Elgar’s 1898 cantata Caractacus. It’s been more than 25 years since the first recording by Richard Hickox on Chandos (1994). Caractacus is an uneven work but possesses enough moments of raw power and pastoral beauty to make it indispensable to lovers of Elgar.

Brabbins, now sporting a beard (pictured), has long been attentive to English music: his recent recording of A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams made an excellent showing in an already strong field. Crucial to that success was the excellence of his soloists, Elizabeth Llewellyn and Marcus Farnsworth. In Brabbins’s Caractacus, however, the performance of the soloists is less uniform.

Roland Wood’s singing of the title role is marred by an excessive wobble, especially in his opening aria in Scene I, “Watchmen, alert! the King is here”. Further into the recording, Wood’s singing improved so much I almost forgot his jarring entrance, but not entirely. In the great Scene V lament, “O my warriors, tell me truly,” Woods delivers some spectacular singing especially in his higher register. The other soloists are quite good. Elizabeth Llewellyn is back with Brabbins as the king’s daughter Eigen and sings with a sensitivity matched to the setting – the Malvern Hills where the Druids celebrate their faith. The tenor voice of Elgan Llŷr Thomas as Eigen’s fiancé Orbin is particularly convincing as the bard caught between the Druids and his respect for Caractacus.

Christopher Purves handles the dual roles of the Arch-Druid and A Bard with a steady and expressive voice. Alastair Miles, who was Caractacus on the Hickox recording, sings the Roman emperor Claudius with complete authority.

Among the vocalists, the Huddersfield Choral Society is the outstanding factor in making this performance worth owning. Not only can every word be discerned but also the shades of meaning urged by conductor Brabbins. The Orchestra of Opera North, too, does all Brabbins asks of them, reminding the listener that at this stage in his career Elgar was more a master of the orchestra than the voice. Enigma Variations was two years away and The Dream of Gerontius three. The musical gap between Caractacus and Gerontius is very large.

The most memorable music in Caractacus lies in the two often-performed orchestral pieces – the Woodland Interlude of Scene III and the Triumphal March of Scene V. Compared with Elgar’s own 1934 recording, Brabbins strangely underplays the Woodland Interlude but more than matches the composer’s recording, from the same year, of the Triumphal March.

Caractacus is out now on Hyperion (CDA68254)

You need to watch this German masterpiece

Deal W. Hudson

February 28, 2019

Never Look Away tells kind of the story that invites superlatives and deserves them. Based upon the life of painter Gerhard Richter, it tells the story of an artist who lives through the Nazi horror and the communist stranglehold, then escapes to West Berlin where, after much trial and error, he earns success and recognition.

This narrative could have descended into kitsch, but Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck makes it entirely convincing. Max Richter’s score is so beautiful in places it nearly overwhelms the visuals, but that is offset by deft touches of Morricone-like dissonance and playfulness.

Never Look Away was released last year in Germany and has just opened in US theatres. At 3 hours and 9 mins, it should feel epic, but it doesn’t: World War II and the Cold War serve as background to a story which becomes more and more personal as it unfolds.

It begins with a teenager, Elizabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl), being taken away by the Nazis because the family doctor reported an episode when Elizabeth sat at the piano at home, completely naked, playing Bach. When asked why, she answered: “Playing a concert for the Führer.” Her younger brother, Curt (Tom Schilling, pictured with Paula Beer), is a young child when he witnesses his beautiful and charismatic sister taken away. Her last words to him are “Never look away”, a dictum which takes him 20 years to understand.

Curt marries Ellie Scheeben (played by Beer), the daughter of a respected doctor who is played by Sebastian Koch. Koch, who starred in Donnersmarck’s 2006 The Lives of Others, convinces as Dr Carl Scheeben, a gynecologist tapped by the Nazis to head the Court of Hereditary Health, making him responsible for choosing who is to be incarcerated, sterilised or killed. Very subtly, Koch allows a crack in his soul to be seen in his reaction to the order – he’s shocked but takes a deep breath and carries it out.

Tom Schilling makes the character of Curt intriguing: this is not just another confused artist, but one who seeks the “truth” in an era of lies. Donnersmarck includes a send-up of performance art that had the audience laughing out loud.

Curt endures much (spoiler alert), including the sight of his father, reduced to serving as a janitor, hanging from a rope. Curt’s talent is supported as long as he sticks to the “Timeless values of the people”, whether Nazi or communist. After escaping to West Germany, he meets an eccentric art professor, skilfully underplayed by Oliver Masucci, who recognises a bottled-up talent in need of some rough handling. Looking at Curt’s initial efforts, he says with near-bluntness: “This is not you.” Stung by the comment, Curt remembers what his sister Elizabeth said – “Never look away” – and then his true talent begins to emerge.

Films that take you into the wilderness with Jesus

Deal W. Hudson

March 14, 2019

It’s hard to understand why any director making a film about Jesus would ignore the face-off with Lucifer. Cecil B DeMille has his mind elsewhere in his 1927 King of Kings. Himself succumbing to carnal temptation, DeMille opens his film with a barely clad Mary Magdalene, now a prostitute in love with Judas. In his Jesus of Nazareth (1997), Franco Zeffirelli, I’m guessing, could not conceive of a suitably Botticelli-like way of depicting the wilderness encounter within his five-and-a-half hour mini-series.

By far the worst wilderness scene is in the King of Kings (1961), directed by Nicholas Ray. Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) climbs with bloody feet over rocky terrain when Miklós Rózsa’s powerful film score is interrupted by Lucifer’s arrival in the form of a plummy voice-over (Orson Wells). The subsequent dialogue is so clumsy, so literal, so cardboard stiff, I was reminded of teenage actors at my local Catholic school.

As he walks out of the wilderness, Jesus meets John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) sitting with John and Andrew. At the Baptist’s recommendation they stand up and start following Jesus like zombies, no questions asked.

In the much-admired 1964 film, The Gospel According to St Matthew, director Pier Paolo Pasolini is anti-Hollywood. Shooting in black-and-white, Pasolini uses non-actors in a 1st-century setting, using language from the Gospel account. There was no screenplay.

We meet a Jesus (pictured) who is ordinary, even frail; he lacks all charisma. As he prays on his knees in the wilderness, a dark figure approaches from a distance. Jesus stands to meet him, and Satan arrives dressed as a priest. Except for a 20-second trip to the top of the temple and back, there’s no drama in the three temptations; neither face changes expression. Satan walks away, but Pasolini’s panoramic shot of Jesus walking out of the desert is worthy of David Lean.

The best of the wilderness scenes are found in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) directed by George Stevens. The screenwriting and direction move in a surprising direction. Jesus (Max von Sydow) hears some laughter and a voice from a cave. It’s Satan (Donald Pleasance), whose voice is gentle and coaxing: “Long hard climb?”

Satan tempts Jesus with the voice of a friend trying to offer a favour. Their faces are barely seen against a night sky filled with a large, cratered moon. Satan explains: I can give you this and that, because “life should be easy”. Jesus struggles for a moment but pulls himself away from the edge of the cliff, and Satan goes back to eating his snack.

Satan, after all, should be depicted as having some touch of St Paul’s “angel of light”.

A painter of pure, radiant happiness

Deal W. Hudson

February 14, 2019

Ali Cavanaugh’s figurative art has deep spiritual roots, discovers Deal Hudson

Ali Cavanaugh is a painter in pursuit of the miracle of human existence. A Catholic convert who was received in 2002, she says this of her faith: “The Blessed Mother is my constant and helps me with every step of my journey as a wife, mother and artist.” With that in mind, we should not be surprised that young people, mostly female, inhabit her work, perhaps reflecting the life she leads with her husband and four children in a small town, Ste Genevieve, outside St Louis.

Her orientation towards the visual world began early: Cavanaugh was only two when she contracted spinal meningitis and lost most of her hearing. She calls the loss “a blessing in disguise as I learned to depend on body language and reading lips to communicate”.

Cavanaugh’s reputation has grown rapidly over the last decade. In 2018 she was listed by BuzzFeed at 26 in the “The Top 100 Figurative Painters Working Right Now”. The first collection of her paintings, Ali Cavanaugh: Modern Fresco Paintings, will be released on March 15, following a showing at the Strand Book Store in New York City on the 13th.

Cavanaugh’s medium is a modern version of fresco. Prompted by her delight in the “mirror finish” after laying plaster on walls, she discovered kaolin clay, a soft, absorbent surface that lasts a long time. After some experimentation, she exhibited her first group of paintings at a NYC gallery in January 2007. They sold out immediately and her career took off after that. By 2014, Cavanaugh was being exhibited by 10 galleries in the US and abroad, and she had been commissioned by Time magazine to paint Taylor Swift.

Modern Fresco Paintings is arranged chronologically from 2007 to 2018. At the front of the book, Cavanaugh relates her life as a person and an artist. A marvellous essay by Daniel Maidman follows. He describes Cavanaugh’s paintings in terms of happiness: “The elements in her work support her depiction of pure, uncorrupted happiness: sunlight – wind – female youths – contour lines – luminous colour – translucency – symmetry – language – and focus.” I agree. The pictures start with wonder, what she calls “the unique presence of the human person”, and portray those moments when “presence” is made manifest. Cavanaugh’s happiness, frankly, took me by surprise: her depictions of playfulness, innocence and joy are moving and contain no feigned naiveté or self-conscious effort to market herself to an audience weary of a topsy-turvy world.

The first image you see, Listening without hearing (2011), across from the title page, is of a teenage girl with shimmering red hair in profile looking to the right. Her arms, bent at the elbow, have raised her hands palms-outward in front of the left side of the head as if to look away from the viewer. She wears white sock arms: socks starting from above the elbow over her hands, the stripes matching the red of her hair. She wears a modest sleeveless shirt with a slight hint of budding adulthood. She’s a classic beauty, lovely red lips, upturned nose and lashed eyes that look even further away from the viewer. The hair as it falls over her chest has a deeper, sensual, luxuriant red of the woman-to-be. The entire effect is one of innocent modesty, of a young woman comfortable in herself but wanting the freedom of being left alone.

Maidmain again is on target: “She summons happiness not from her figures but from us.” This not the happiness of teenage self-indulgence. Cavanaugh found happiness the hard way: dealing with the burden of childhood deafness and a father who abandoned her and her mother.

Unlike many who are hurt early in life, she does not turn from suffering. After moving to Ste Genevieve, Cavanaugh met Milly, a teenage girl who had “a compelling presence”, in spite of the hair loss and scarring from treatments for severe cancer. After photographing Milly, she waited a year before painting her. These are my favourite paintings in the book regardless of the backstory. This sequence maps the life of a teenage girl. As a father of a 30-year daughter, I recognise the teenager wrestling with the onset of the adult world – the shyness and insecurity, the perk and charm, the creativity and fantasy, the determination to make it through.

Not until the final chapter, “chroma”, do boys enter Cavanaugh’s visual world. This makes me wonder what lies ahead for this brilliant painter, only in her late 40s: what other lives will she explore, what ages and genders? I’m confident that whatever subjects she turns to will be revealed in a way that recognises the good that lies deeply within all of us.

Ali Cavanaugh’s paintings will be shown at the Strand Book Store in New York City on March 13 at 7.30 pm. For more information, visit alicavanaugh.com.

Deal Hudson is the Catholic Herald’s US Arts Editor