Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Listening to Silence: Arvo Part

I am grateful for the people at YouTube for posting some beautiful videos to accompany the music of Arvo Part (the "a" should be umlauted; he's Estonian), which had been vaguely familiar to me from past radio broadcasts. Now I am a fan.

The music is transcendent, not only the famous "Spiegel im Spiegel," with its hypnotic piano music sounding like raindrops but the choral works "De Profundis," "Magnificant," "Nunc Dimittis," etc.

This music is radiant minimalism: experimentally modern in a sense yet traditional enough to move me. It evokes silence, which I've tried in several print articles to define as presence (not at all the absence of sound).

I have found the silence of the timeless present in paintings, in reading and in certain slow films, and in music, too, music that leads to reflection, quieting down like the Mahler "adagietto" movement from the Fifth Symphony. It is virtually impossible to listen to such music with a busy mind.

Silence, wherever it is found, produces a mindfulness to the present moment that David Steindl-Rast has called "the now dimension of time," by which he means an idea of time not running out but "rising like water in a well, rising to that fullness of time that is now."

If this sounds too mysterious, I would respond that mystery is exactly what we need. Aren't all the really major issues--God and the existence of evil, the meaning of happiness and love and life itself--essentially mysteries? The mystic is one who embraces the mysteries of the seen and unseeen worlds and is grateful for them.

So today I am grateful for Arvo Part. I know almost nothing about him except that he has a deeply felt spirituality, perhaps a religious fervor, that manifests itself in music marked by simplicity. For me, this simplicity evokes silence.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Never lonely

One advantage of visiting doctors' offices is the chance to read magazines I don't otherwise see. This week I found myself perusing the current issue of National Geographic.

There I found stunning photographs by the Australian Murray Fredericks of the remote, vast (3,700 square miles) and salty Lake Eyre. His aim: to take photographs of infinite space.

In what he calls the bleakest, most featureless place on Earth, Fredericks never grew lonely, even though he camped out there for five weeks. Only when he got back to civilization and sat at a quiet bar did he feel lonely.

Many monks in the desert or in the ordinary remoteness of the monastery do not feel loneliness because, I suppose, they have learned to cultivate a solitude through prayer so that they can feel connected to others and to God. So it is possible for the solitary person, alone with his or her thoughts and prayers, to feel content, even happy. Never lonely, like the people looking for connections without success in countless bars around the world.

This brings me back to the topic raised for me by Merton--of solitude as something very different from emotional emptiness, sadness, or despair. Aloneness need not be loneliness. Many people are single either by choice or circumstances but are not leading drab, empty lives like Eleanor Rigby.

This topic is relevant to writers, who spend considerable amounts of time alone. Perhaps for this reason, beginning writers are reluctant to face the blank paper or screen because of some conscious or unconscious fear of isolation. Although lonely feelings can easily intrude when one is alone, the writer's engagement with his or her material (as well as with readers) generally prevents this feeling, just as the person in a truly centered type of prayer can be as alone as the photographer out in the middle of a silent but beautiful nowhere--yet feel fulfilled.

I understand what Merton meant by writing as a form of prayer, even though both of us know that not all writing will be prayerful, just as all solitude will not be rewarding. It all depends on the attitude we choose.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Right to Life--and Truth

I was saddened last night to learn that Troy Davis was executed in Georgia (and apparently two other men since then in other states, who received less publicity). What does capital punishment in these cases solve? Do those involved feel closure? Are the victims' families truly happy that the state has taken a life, as in "an eye for an eye"?

If protests today occurred because of Davis's execution, some good will have come out of the evil of taking life--in the form of reflction on the uselessness of the thirst for blood, and of the fact that capital punishment, as is well known, does not deter future criminals from acting.

Will Gov. Perry, now the leading GOP contender for the presidential nomination, continue to be applauded as he defends the rights of the unborn but gladly signs more death warrants in Texas? He likes to brag about the tough way he has handled death sentences, and when he does, many applaud.

Where were the Catholic bishops and other pro-lifers last night to protest the killing of Davis? Are the rights of the unborn more important than the life of a man who might have deserved a second trial or a reprieve so that unanswered questions could be addressed?

How does the death of anyone, even the most heinous criminal, solve anything in the criminal system?

Perry probably does not know, given his dismal academic record and shoot-from-the-hip style, that studies show that capital punishment fails to deter crime and for a Christian, as he claims to be, is morally wrong. But he is the same type of know-nothing who sees evolution, as presented by Darwin in 1859, as avant-garde, whose attitude toward global warming is equally primitive and alarming.

Perry, like Bachmann and Palin, seem quite proud of all they don't know and quite ready to propose ideas they don't know how to think through. The results should alarm the electorate more than the economic downturn because ignorance, as Socrates claimed, can be the greatest evil.

I want to read the new book by the noted environmentalist Bill McKibben, Eaarth. A reviewer has noted the unprecedented facts he cites about depleted oil storehouses, dying forests, melting glaciers, threatened water supplies, endangered rain forests and other results of global warming that are already producing extreme weather problems. Yet the climate change deniers continue to ignore reality, pointing to falsified data, corporate-sponsored research, and historical and Biblical tales that supposedly deny the evidence presented by McKibben and so many others.

Serious students of ecology are not preparing for the end of time, like some Christian extremists, but offering realistic suggestions for acting to help civilization prevent the end of planet earth. Will our future political leaders read such books, heed such warnings? Will they reflect on the complexity of the moral issues we all face or continue to offer slogans that will appeal to their political base? The answer, sadly, is obvious.

We have become a country divided into separate spheres of reality, where truth is daily sacrificed, along with life, in the self-interested business of getting elected.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why are people bored?

In reading a review of Lost in Transition by the sociologist of religion (at Notre Dame) Christian Smith, I encounter again the question faced by David Foster Wallace about the rootless, restless, disspirited nature of so many people's lives. The focus on Smith's book is on adolescent Americans, who are in crisis: they now remain students longer than in the past, just as they depend on their parents longer, and resist marriage as long as possible; they dread the world of work since it has changed: it offers little in the way of long-term stability.

As a result, these young people (by and large) have a certain amount of freedom--including freedom from commitments; and moral boundaries are less clear than in their parents' generation. They might agree that murder, rape, and robbery are wrong, but doubt that cheating on exams (or one one's partner) is always wrong. As I discovered among my own students, their main concern in cheating is whether they will be caught. As to the behavior of others, well, it is up to each person to decide for himself.

"Very few seem to think that right and wrong are rooted in anything outside personal experience," says the Spectator review of Smith's book.

They are into consumerism, drinking, and sex because of peer pressure, in part, but also because of sheer boredom. Why, with all the choices they have, all the opportunities for learning and enjoying life, would anyone be bored? Could it be that they have too many options, too many consumer goods, like the child who is flooded with toys on Christmas morning and turns with relief to playing hide-and-seek?

Might it be that boredom is, in my favorite definition, a fear of running out of things to do? If happiness consists only of entertaining activities, it is not hard for an imaginative, intelligent person to anticipate a life without the gratification of more stimulation. We are all essentially restless, in part because we do not find a place for contemplation, solitude, and silence.

Few people have articulated the importance of these three things as memorably as the Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton. I began today to look through my "Merton files," clippings of readings sent to me from the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living and other e-mail newsletters, and I find that the two ideas of solitude and silence recur in this extensive body of work more than any other; they are the keys to inner happiness and peace.

Both before and after becoming a monk, Merton, a restless soul, knew the dark side of boredom as a kind of depression. Yet he sought out what to many would seem like the least likely answer: a remote monastery. Once there, he sought out the solitude of his own hermitage in the woods. After being persistent, he was finally (c. 1965) allowed to move to a shed that became "a delight," as he writes in one of his journals: "I can imagine no other joy on earth than to have such a place and to be at peace in it, to live in silence, to think and write, to listen to the wind and all the voices of the wood, to prepare for my own death, to love my brothers and all people, to pray for the world and for peace and good sense among men."

As he wrote elsewhere, all of us need to seek peace within ourselves "because we do not naturally find rest even in our own being. We have to learn to commune with ourselves before with can communicate with other men and with God. A man who is not at peace with himself necessarily projects his interior fighting into the society of those he lives with, and spreads a contagion of conflict all around him." (This is from
No Man is an Island, 1955.)

As Merton makes clear repeatedly, solitude is a true refuge from the depression and restlessness implied in boredom; it is not a negative relationship--the absence of people, any more than silence is the absence of sound. "True solitude is a partcipation in the true solitariness of God, Who is in all things....It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers."

There's much more: Solitude is not, says Merton, something to hope for in the future; "it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present, you will not find it." For Merton as writer, as for all writers, solitude is essential, and the writing does not isolate the one who writes but connects him or her to all the unseen readers he imagines, just as in silence he can feel connected to all those who are at a given moment being contemplative(fully present to the present moment) rather than busy.

Writing, prayer, contemplation, solitude--all of these involve a sense of creative aloneness in which one does not feel loneliness but a sense of connection with the self, with others, and with God. As the contemporary monk Peter-Damian Belisle says, "One is never alone in true solitude. There is the powerful experience of presence that arises out of solitude's depths."
Honest aloneness makes us not alone but awake to God's presence.

The same type of presence rises from the depths of silence, whenever we give ourselves permission to find the freedom that comes in silence. That is one of the paradoxes Merton loves to explore: We are truly free when we "encounter God in our hearts...the truth that makes us free is...the presence in us of a divine person." True religion is a liberating force that helps us find ourselves in God.

Is there a scriptural basis for any of this? St. Paul: "The Spirit pleads for us in our inmost being, beyond words, beyond thoughts, beyond images." The peace and even joy that can come from contemplation, says the mystical tradition of Christianity, is the antidote to boredom and restlessness which afflict our anxious age.

"There is not enough silence," T. S. Eliot wrote. To free ourselves from the noise of too many words, too many thoughts, too much stuff, we need solitude and silence, challenging though these can become.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Modern Secularism and the Renaissance

This is in part a response to the forthcoming book by Stephen Greenblatt , Swerve: How the World Became Modern as previewed by Laura Miller of Salon.com. I'm grateful to Salon and Miller for reviewing the book more fully than Kirkus and for being skeptical of the liberties Greenblatt takes, not for the first time, with historical events and figures.

Greenblatt, like many critics who follow the New Historicism that he helped establish, is very selective in what he does with Shakespeare, his main scholarly subject, and now with the Epicurean philosophy of Lucretius, the ancient Roman author of a text, On the nature of things, that was unearthed one day in 1417 in a monastic library by one Poggio Bracciolini. The result of this discovery, of course, was that the world was forever changed, at least according to Greenblatt and his publisher.

Greenblatt tries to show, according the advanced looks at his book we have been getting in the media, how this forgotten old text, with its materialist emphasis on atomism, denial of the afterlife, critique of religion as cruel, and view of life's goal as the pursuit of pleasure, ushered in the modern secular world view, according to which 21st century readers, expected to be equally skeptical of religion and the supernatural, will gratefully applaud if they are sensible secular humanists themselves (not humanists in the way Thomas More or John Milton were, of course, in the Renaissance).

Laura Miller sums up the value of Lucretius's materialist philosophy by stating that no longer was there a need for "a supernatural enforcer" threatening to condemn the bad guys to eternal torment. That is, no need for God: the good life in the Epicurean view is a matter of living justly, honorably, prudently and in way that celebrates life in this world, not the next.

This begs an important question or two: does the Christian world view condemn life in this world (something called the Incarnation would contract this and would be known to anyone theologically literate)? Has celebrating the next world has been the consistent focus of the church (Catholic, of course) since we are talking about the course of Western civilization? Of course not.

The other major flaw in Miller's brief review of Greenblatt's new book is her assertion that she and her generation were raised to think of the Renaissance as bursting forth after the darkness of the Middle Ages, as Kenneth Clark had proclaimed in his book and TV series of 40 years ago, Civilization.

A quick check of my copy of Clark's survey of Western art and culture indicates that, although he does glorify the achievement of the Florentine Renaissance, he has devoted three solid chapters to appreciating the medieval, including detailed commentary on Dante, Giotto, and St. Francis of Assisi while explaining the wonders of Chartres and the Gothic--all of which are absent, apparently, from Greenblatt's contention that the discovery of the Lucretius text in 1417 (after Dante, after Chaucer, after Petrarch and Boccaccio and the flowering of the 12th and 13th centuries) made all the difference since it "changed the world" (something every historian must claim, however accurate).

Clark even contends (p. 35) and repeatedly shows that "Western civilization was basically the creation of the Church," meaning the Church of Rome which, from the 12th century on, was the center of power, education, and culture that shaped the intellectual and emotional lives of people for centuries. Miller remembers being taught that medieval culture was an "inert cultural wasteland," especially as depicted by Kenneth Clark.

It seems that in my 33 years of university teaching I spent countless hours trying to counter this view, showing how the culture that produced Dante and Chaucer, not to mention the Gothic cathedrals, was dynamic, daring, and sophisticated in its thinking and that what we call the Renaissance was a continuation of the humanism (including the science) that began in the 11th and 12th centuries.

But scholars wedded to a secular humanism that is antagonistic to religion, and to Catholic Western values in particular, are quick to stereotype the vast and complex period of the European Middle Ages as backward, just as they are quick to convey to students that the Renaissance was a sudden flowering of the individual, with the supernatural finally swept aside before being buried in the so-called Enlightenment. The result is a skewed view of the emergence of the modern age.

It is easier to maintain this reductive view than to keep an open mind about the real role of religion in the development of the modern world. It is bad enough to find know-nothings on the political right today (Perry, Palin and Bachmann seem quite proud not to know very much); to find blindness in the academy can be downright depressing.

Perhaps Laura Miller, with her other errors, has misstated Greenblatt's thesis. But I doubt it. I plan to read the book very carefully.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

God revisited

I usually enjoy the comic news dispatches from Andy Borowitz. This week he included a description of God as "the bearded King of the Universe, dressed in his trademark flowing white robe and carrying a lightning bolt."

This image, derived from a combination of Zeus, Hollywood and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, is probably close to the popular stereotype of God as an old man "up there," messing around with human lives. It's understandable that most people need a specific image rather than an abstraction they can't visualize. It's convenient to look up to the sky and imagine there a God you can blame for storms or illness or bad luck.

We might smile at such images of "God," yet at the same time, most of us who think about matters of faith know that such anthromorphism is ludicrous and even dangerous. It reduces the infinite and unknowable to the dimensions of a cartoon. Even those who know the Bible often forget the revelation of the divine to Moses as "I am who am." I am Being itself, not a being: this is the ancient and medieval notion of God that respects the mystery and daring of the revelation.

For the Christian, God is unknowable except through his Son and indirectly through his creatures, especially the human kind, or I should say, especially through human love as it is reflected in creation. If I need a non-human image of this ultimate mystery, I rely on an ancient one: light.

I say all this because I have recently read All Things Shining, a book that promises to find meaning and the sacred in the secular world by reading the classics. The authors' conclusion about David Foster Wallace, who emerges as a key player in their humanistic search, is that, for Wallace, we humans are the ones responsible for creating out of nothing "whatever idea of the sacred there can ever be."

Such is the modern dilemma: from Matthew Arnold on, many writers in the West have lost the traditional notion of a permanent, unchanging reality beyond our mutable world; thus God as the ultimate source of meaning is "dead," and each of us is left to find what the heart yearns for--the holy--elsewhere or nowhere.

As a result, any discussion of presence, even capitalized, is vague; and the mystical is reduced (or expanded) to include the spiritually strange; mystery is not included in the "search for the sacred," which (as in the book I just referenced) is never defined. We are left with a series of intellectual abstractions.

Poems like Dante's "Divine Comedy" and The Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot, however, can remind us that the love that moves the universe, like prayer, is still valid, even in a world of ever-growing diversity and complexity. The traditional spirituality of Thomas Merton, like that of Thomas Keating today and many others, is a reminder that gratitude and the presence of God in silence are real and not merely the product of our selves.

The God who lives within us as a loving presence is not an old man in a flowing robe.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

David Foster Wallace, part II

Wallace (to follow up my earlier post) could apparently not live up to his own high ideals, especially in finding a way to a sense of the sacred and meaningful in a world filled with sadness and lostness, a world without the sense of God's presence.

His work, as Dreyfus and Kelly show in their new book, shows that to live in a secular age--even for a religious believer like myself--means that you face existential questions about how to live your life in ways that people in medieval times did not. You are often being tested to see if the moral and religious world view you grew up with is helpful in coping with a life full of pain, disappointment, anxiety, and distraction.

Wallace, in a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, had some important things to say about dealing with the frustrations and misery of daily living. He says we can choose how to respond to these problems and even experience these annoyances as meaningful and happy.

"If you really learn how to pay attention," he said, you can find the experience of life in a modern hell not only meaningful "but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of things deep down." I wonder if the graduates at Kenyon knew what he meant.

Wow, I thought when I read this paragraph: this is Dante for the modern age. The question is: did Wallace realize what was involved in Dante's vision--and did he share it? The authors of All Things Shining insist that the answer is No: the sacred in Wallace is something we impose from within ourselves upon what we experience, not a given part of tradition, as in Dante's Christianity. In other words, anything can be made sacred if I choose to make it so.

The sacred is the product, apparently, if Dreyfus and Kelly are right in their interpretation of Wallace, of the individual will--a far cry from Dante's mystical union with the divine at the end of Paradiso. We are closer here to Nietzsche than to Dante.

It was Nietzsche who proclaimed that "God is dead" in the modern world of thought (i.e, the idea of God); but he added that "there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown." Indeed.

Does God cast a shadow in the fiction of David Foster Wallace as He certainly did in his life of brilliant creativity? A question to return to. Maybe, as the authors contend in this intriguing book All Things Shining,
the sacred fire has not abandoned those of us who search for what is meaningful in our earthly existence; the problem is that too many of us have abandoned the sacred. That is the spiritual challenge of the postmodern age.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace, three years after his suicide, continues to provoke comment and controversy. I suppose one reason is that few writers deal so openly with moral values, or the absence thereof, in the complex world of what is called postmodern fiction.

In a recent book, which promises more than it delivers, All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, offers some attempts to find meaning in a secular age by returning to the classics.

To my surprise, one of the best parts of this book is a study of Wallace in contrast to Dante, who is used as a model of having "a grand hierarchy of meaning." The medieval poet can easily assume that there is a God and therefore a source of order and meaning in the universe. Our age, says Wallace, fails to give us a coherent story about the meaning in our lives. "We have inherited no real moral values."

In an interview, Wallace said that Americans need to grow up, put away childish things "and comfortable stuff about spirituality and values." He finds a certain sadness in the lives of intelligent, successful Americans of his generation (he was 46 at his untimely death) because of a lack of morality and meaning. Too much comfortable stuff.

Whether Wallace's novels--huge and rambling, with footnotes and famously long sentences that show off his skills in grammar, if nothing else--present a coherent world view that can even be mentioned in the same breath as Dante remains to be seen. So far, I have yet to finish any of his self-consciously literary stream of consciousness works of fiction to know anything more than that Wallace was a prolific, observant, challenging writer with a cult-like following.

I also know that Kelly and Dreyfus have given me a helpful introduction to Wallace so that, in trying now to re-read him, I know what to look for: a search for the sacred, maybe even the selfless, in the welter of a diverse, ever-changing culture. In what sense can we call Wallace religious? I hope to find out.

In an essay that Wallace might have enjoyed if depression had not overcome him, Roger Scruton, the British academic, writing recently in Prospect magazine, talks about the power of the sacred image and how easy it is for what is consecrated to be desecrated. We often don't think of the sacred thing--the icon, for example--as potentially dangerous, until we think of iconoclasm, perhaps. The way fear and suspicion has influenced the development of religion may be one way writers today, whether they are call themselves postmodern or not, have been reluctant to entertain religion questions. That, and the sad reality that so many readers have given up on religion in the usual (comforting) sense.

Yet, unless writers and artists raise uncomfortable questions about God, meaning and ethical choices, readers like me will be endlessly dissatisfied.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Endangered Words

I have decided to form the Society for Endangered Words (assuming that there is no such group in existence) to protect certain rarely used English words from extinction. The idea of endangered words and the need to protect them was mentioned in a recent article by Robert Fulford.

He mentions "eurocommunism" as a dated word that the Oxford English Dictionary excludes from its Concise edition (keeping it for the multi-volume complete edition and the online version of the world's most comprehensive and authoritative dictionary). This raises the question: words may be labeled "obsolete," but they never really die. The OED has dropped "threequal" (third book in a series) since it is rarely used, but you can still find it in the big edition.

Fulford makes a good case for keeping "pusillanimous," which is clearly superior to cowardice. It has overtones reaching "deep into the sources of timidity," he says, with its hints of fear and censorious childrearing. He finds that the New York Times used "pusillanimous" or its noun version ten times in the past two years.

I would argue that we hold onto--hence my new Society--"discombobulate," an American word from the 19th century too colorful and full of bluster to exclude. It's a fanciful variant on "confuse" or "disorient." And I would retain in my list of endangered words "superannuated," which sounds infinitely superior to "too old to work"; it's a better word than "obsolete" or "antiquated" unless you are describing ideas or things and not people.

I might drop a word I never use and always stumble on: "jejune," which can signify an immature person, an insignificant book (I would use "insipid"), or an inadequate diet. I would like to hear other opinions on this one. I would definitely drop "jerry-built" (shoddy) since my own name is Jerry and I always cringe when I encounter this old-fashioned word.

So that is how words die: they are so rarely used that they cease to circulate and the OED lexicographers and other experts move them into storage. In the meantime, we who subscribe to SEW (Society for Endangered Words) will fight to retain most of the colorful ones. So it goes. (Pun intended)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

In the Fast Lane

An 83-year-old lady was recently stopped by a traffic cop. "Do you realize you're speeding?" She replied, "Yes, officer, but I had to get there before I forgot where the hell I was going." She got off lightly. (Apparently, if the Internet is to be believed, a true story.)

Most of us, even retirees, seem to be in a hurry. When I was invited to join the Friends of Silence, I immeditately did so. The price was right (free), and the obligations for participating in this online movement non-existent. Even though I have written a lot about silence in the work of Thomas Merton and led retreats on the topic, I find myself preoccupied with busy tasks and need to take time alone to slow down and be silent.

I've written about the Slow Movement, which began in Italy and has spread to areas other than eating, before, and about my love for adagios in music and slowly unfolding movies and novels, and for savoring the present the way our cat, Lizzie, does: with total attention to even the most routine things.

For example, today, as I opened the door for her to go onto the porch, she studied the doorstop with wonderment, as if she had never seen it before. This was, of course, instinctive caution overruling whatever memory she might have had of seeing me, over the past twelve years, do this identical thing. She was concerned that she might not have a way back into the house; the doorstop was her guarantee of an opening.

But what struck me was the way she approaches many of the totally familiar and routine things of her life, as if they are new and amazing. It's like what mystics aim for in their very different searches but what all of us can do if we stop, slow down, and really look at the ordinary things of our lives.

How easy it is to be carried off in memories or daydreams while driving, cooking, or showering instead of consciously noticing the water, the smell of the soap, the feel of the experience, as if for the first time. Mindfulness of this type takes a bit of concentration, but it is rewarding.

I recently glanced at several books at Barnes and Noble, all of them advocating some aspect of mindfulness for stressed people. One by Jan Bays, MD says we can turn the humdrum tasks of our lives into mindful moments that give us a pleasing awareness of an awakened life. You don't have to be a Buddhist to follow this practice, which can easily be applied to Christian or other forms of prayer (Centering prayer, e.g.). To recognize that the kingdom of God is in and around us now requires mindfulness. It has to do with being present to ourselves without criticism, judgment, or analysis--and of our bodies and the world around us so that we feel the presence of God in the present moment.

It usually begins with simply slowly down.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Religion and the Movies

I am not alone in observing that, over the past 40 years and more, movies and other popular media have done a poor job of portraying religion in the lives of their characters. In a country where vast numbers of people still attend some church or temple or mosque, where religion and politics remain a hot topic, the films produced in Hollywood (and elsewhere) are often silent on the topic of faith. If the story includes a clergyman, it is invariably in a perfunctory role at a wedding or funeral service; and if this clergy person is allowed to speak, he is likely to sound harsh, negative, or foolish.

It's as if the filmmakers are embarrassed to bring up anything to do with the genuine role Christianity (the usual faith) plays in people's lives, as if it is too private, whereas scenes of sexual intimacy can be shown in graphic detail.

Productions from the U.K. tend to be worse, of course, reflecting that country's abandonment of a great deal of traditional belief. Consider a recent PBS Masterpiece Mystery production of "Inspector Lewis" in which a young Jesuit priest was seen flagellating himself, then lying prostrate on the floor of a chapel on the grounds of a stately home. We learn that he was there "on retreat." This is laughable and not what Jesuit priests do on retreats. It's as if the screenwriter has no way to portray this character except by sensationalizing him.

In the next episode of the same series, which is otherwise well done, a young man wears a rosary over his Sacred Heart of Mary t-shirt, as if to say, "I'm one of those fanatic Catholics." Everyone was shocked to learn that the dead man, an Oxford don, had secretly been active at the local St. Ann's Church; but, then, he had a brain tumor and was a bit deranged. That would explain it. Faith and science just don't mix in most Oxford circles.

So the message here is that to be a Catholic or openly religious is a bizarre thing to be in a thoroughly secularized, Hobbesian universe, where material values are the only rational option. The Anglican preachers in these programs tend to be gloomy, trite, twisted, or piously irrelevant.

I have been trying to recall a film in which a priest or other clergyman was important, taken seriously, and not mocked. The list is very short.

"You Can Count on Me" (2000) includes a key scene in which the priest (played by the writer-director Kenneth Lonergan) asks the Mark Ruffalo character if he sees his life as important--in the big scheme of things. This, for me, became the major question of the movie and the most memorable scene.

"Tree of Wooden Clogs," a 1978 film we saw on video last year, is an Italian gem in which a sensible village priest is part of the quiet village life somewhere in Lombardy, where families pray together at night and where happiness comes from simple songs and stories. There religion is not a big deal, just a central part of life.

It is so easy to stereotype priests and other clergy as out of touch with ordinary life. Perhaps it's better to leave them out altogether from the movies (I don't watch enough TV to comment) since the temptation to ridicule by going over the top (and offending some viewers) is just too great. It is a pity since the type of comfort, love, and meaning people get in their practice of their faith is enormous.