Monday, November 30, 2009

The Night’s Dark Shade: A Novel of the Cathars by Elena Maria Vidal

I had the pleasure of reading Elena Maria Vidals’ new historical romance, “The Night’s Dark Shade”, released by Mayapple Press in November, 2009.

The Night’s Dark Shade tells the story of a young heiress, Lady Raphaelle, who is caught up in the turmoil of the Albigensian Crusade in thirteenth century France. En route to meet her betrothed in the castle in the Pyrenees that is hers by right, she is rescued from an ambush by the brave and alluring Sir Martin.

The sparks between the two are flying from the very beginning, while the readers learns of the history of the crusade as well as the mysterious Cathars, a polytheistic sect which claimed to be Christian. In the first chapter the setting, plot, and all the main characters are all well-established. The second chapter instructs us on some history as told by the sweet-smelling knight as he carries her on horseback to her castle. The novel moves on, mixing history and drama, at a good pace. Raphaelle is caught up in several major dilemmas; we can truly sympathize with what she is going through.

Raphaelle is a strong character who insists on doing what is right for her people. All that she does, including following through on her betrothal to a man she does not love, is seen as her duty to them. Even so, she is torn by the feelings she has for another man. She also chooses to harbor an evil object which results in dire consequences. Vidal shows us how even the very best of us can struggle with sin.

The book addresses some surprising delicate moral issues of the time that are seldom brought up in a Christian novel. The Cathars were against marriage because it regularized procreation, and they thought children were evil. The religious midwives used herbs to prevent conception or to abort, even killing live babies if they were not deemed fit to survive. They promoted homosexuality because it did not result in children. People were encouraged to live together without marriage because they were more likely to contracept.

These topics are intertwined through the plot; the immoral acts are alluded to but never described explicited. The historical research is well documented, and moral deductions drawn by the author are all consistent with Catholic doctrine.

The more you read about history, the more you realize that there is truly nothing new under the sun. What is going on in modern society is a rerun of what was happening in the Middle Ages. If you haven’t heard about the “dark side of being green”, many environmental groups have been saying that children are “emitters” and the best thing we can do for the environment is to stop having children! Planned Parenthood is supported by so many large and well-reputed organizations that it is hard to go shopping, go to a movie, or go to a theme park without purchasing a product that will go toward their “cause”.

I was pleasantly surprised by the ending. I was up until 3 AM reading the suspenseful ending! Justice is served (medieval style!) to the protagonists. The main characters all make turn-arounds for the better and there is forgiveness all around. The choice Raphaelle makes in the end is completely satisfying.

Elena Maria Vidal sent me a copy of the newly released book in exchange for my honest review of her book. The author studied the Cathars at SUNY Albany before receiving her Master’s Degree in European History. She also authored Trianon and Madame Royale. You can follow her blog at

The book is available from and will be available from Amazon in a few weeks.

Signed copies can also be bought directly from the author at her blog Tea at Trianon

Movie Review: The Blind Side

Should I see it?

Short Review: When you have a film that gets cursed by critics and praised by audiences, you know it has to be fantastic.

I adore this film.

The Blind Side tells the true story of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a homeless black teen who has fallen through the cracks. Michael applies to a private school and is accepted through the successful campaigning by the school’s football coach. Michael's large build and quick feet make him a natural for the position of left tackle on the school's football team. Michael attends the school but remains homeless, friendless and still suffering from his miserable childhood in the projects.

One evening, Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) and Sean Tuohy (Tim McGraw) see the teen walking in the rain. Leigh Anne, a very commanding woman, makes the choice to not only invite the stranger into their car, but also into their home.

Michael finds safety and love in the Tuohy’s home. Through their efforts and sacrifice, Michael discovers his athletic gifts and develops his scholarly abilities as well. Michael graduates from school and is swarmed by colleges hoping to get him on their teams.

The plot of the film may make this sound like yet another black kid(s) + sports = redemption movie (Remember the Titans, Glory Road, The Express, Pride, Coach Carter and on and on). This film above comparison to these films. The performances, the acting and the careful direction are all exceptional and the film looks beyond the racism elements. The story itself is so invigorating and inspiring that it transcends its genre.

The story offers a clear example of living the Christian life. The Tuohy’s are Christians who understand the faith isn’t just going to church and memorizing passages. The heart of the Christian faith resides in relationships. The faith lives in our relationship with Christ and allowing His love to reflect in our relationship with each other.

Much of the reaction to the film is focused on Sandra Bullock's infectious performance as Leigh Anne. Bullock, looking like a Kathy Lee Gifford clone, offers what is easily her best performance. Leigh Anne is a sassy, direct woman who obviously knows how to get whatever she wants. Bullock manages to keep the strong willed aspect of the woman at the forefront but allowing her maternal caring to peek through when needed. The duality of her strong will and her soft heart makes for a wonderful character to witness on screen.

In contrast to Bullock's assertive performance is Quinton Aaron as Michael Oher. Oher is notoriously introverted. Playing someone who avoids interaction is a challenging task. Aaron is able to present Oher's almost debilitating shyness while also making him endearing. It would have been easy to wind up having Oher be little more that a oafish prop living in Leigh Anne's shadow. Aaron's nuanced performance is the emotional anchor for the film and provides the context for the entire piece. His delicate performance deserves the credit for the film's success. If he wasn't so engaging on screen his Oher's transformation wouldn't have been as fascinating.

The old line “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” can be changed. "Dying is easy, inspiring others is hard." The attempt to inspire an audience is one of the biggest risks an artist can make. Inspiration reminds us of the good deep in our hearts and encourages us to open our better natures to the world. Inspiration promotes the higher ideals such as the Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12, “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

When a filmmaker attempts to inspire they risk the sarcasm of misanthropes. As we have seen with the release of this film, the attacks come easily from those who think upbeat equates simplicity of thought. If you come across critics bashing this film for being racist or manipulative you can assume the critic is filtering their own personal issues through their writing. This is simply a great movie. It is honestly inspiring and challenges the audience to not only improve their lives but to improve the lives of those around them. The production promotes all that is good in us. In an age of torture-porn and filth-laden Hollywood blockbusters this film is an absolute must see (as soon as you can).

Final Note: If you enjoyed this film, I strongly suggest you search out a documentary titled The Heart of Texas. Like this film it is inspiring and presents one of the most incredible stories of forgiveness and love I have ever seen.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Movie Review: 2012 - PG13

cross-posted from A Catholic View

Warning: Potential Spoilers

It is interesting that I saw "2012" today considering today's gospel reading, which I posted below.

To sum it up, "2012" is not much more than a long trailer. There is a story, about different people facing the end of the world. President Thomas Wilson (Donny Glover) is the American President trying to lead the country, and the world, through this. Jackson Curtis (John Cusak) is trying to save his 2 kids and ex-wife. He finds out from Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson) that the world governments have been secretly building giant ships preparing for this. They spend most of the movie trying to find these ships. Yuri Karpov is a Russian billionaire who has used his wealth to buy tickets on the ship for himself and his wife, as well as a huge plane filled with his possessions (mainly cars) to get there. There is also a Chinese family trying to reach the ships which are in China.The thing that kept going through my mind was how implausible this all was. Looking at it from our Catholic faith, God is the only one who knows when or how the world will eventually end. And when he does, no one can change it.

One thing I can say for it is that the spectacular special effects made it watchable.

From today's readings (11/29/09):

Jesus said to his disciples:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But when these signs begin to happen,
stand erect and raise your heads
because your redemption is at hand.

“Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times
and pray that you have the strength
to escape the tribulations that are imminent
and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Lk 21:25-28, 34-36

Movie Review: 2012 (2009)

Should I see it?
If your brain is not connected to your spinal column, then yes.

Short Review: It’s as bombastic as it is ill conceived, which is fancy way of saying its loud and stupid.

2012 movie poster
John Cusack is in his forties and is still playing half-man schlubs who can’t manage relationships. His character Jackson Curtis is broken down, broken-hearted and just plain broke. His ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) has left him. His kids loathe his mere presence. In a way, this film is like seeing Better Off Dead as done by Michael Bay.

This is a horrendous film.



Thankfully it is also a bloated disaster movie so it doesn’t really matter. All the film has to do is flash lights to distract from its limping plot in order to be successful. The only reason to see this film is to watch the end of the world in glorious high definition. Writer/Director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla, 10,000 B.C.) promises to deliver the apocalypse with as few words as possible. He delivers on his promise.

What I found amazing is that Emmerich still bothers trying to shoehorn relationship issues into the end of days. At one point Jackson and Kate have a quiet moment together. She complains that Jackson spent too much time working and not enough time with his family. They literally just watched billions of people perish, the totality of human civilization has been destroyed and she is still nagging at the poor sap. I guess we can see why things didn't work out them.

The problem with trying to pull off character development in a film like this is that once you show the USS John F. Kennedy on a tsunami wave crashing into the White House and killing the President, it's a little much to ask us to care about the gripes from John Cusack’s ex-wife.

If you are only interested in seeing crashing buildings, ridiculous plot contrivances and perilous escapes, this will be a good pick. If you have the tendency to pause while watching movies and consider how reality actually works, you will probably still enjoy it because it’s dang funny from that angle.

I laughed constantly through the film. Here is a moment which sums up the film for me. Jackson is driving a limo through Los Angeles as the city is literally falling to pieces. A building crashes down in front of him. He jumps the limo into the side of the falling building, drives the car across a floor, speeding through a business office, crashes out of a window and manages to land safely on the highway on the other side. If you can handle that level of dumb, knock yourself out.

Worldview: I was struck by Emmerich's treatment of faith. Every once in a while someone would casually mention that “its time to start praying”. Other than these passing nods to the notion that some people may or may not possibly consider asking for mercy from something that maybe perhaps might be something kinda like a God or something or who knows what, there is a remarkable absence of any real faith. The President begins to quote scripture at one point, but he is cut off before he finishes. The world is ending, billions are dying, and the only references to Jesus Christ are when characters are cursing.

Emmerich is very deliberate in his presentation of religion in this film, particularly when it comes to the destruction of iconic places. Emmerich is given credit for popularizing the destruction of landmarks in action/disaster movies. The White House being blown up in Independence Day started the trend. Destroying the White House, Washington Monument, and other landmarks serves to pervert the “Death of God Image" I’ve discussed before.

In this film, Emmerich takes the Death of God Image and runs with it. He not only shows the Christ the Redeemer Statue in Brazil crumbling, but he stops the movie cold to spend time at the Vatican. Thousands of Catholics are crowded outside of Saint Peter’s Cathedral as the Pope looks down on them from the balcony. Inside, a collection of cardinals huddle in a circle praying. As the room begins to shake they look upward to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (apparently its been moved). The ceiling cracks and splits, severing the famous fingers of God and Adam. Suddenly, the Saint Peter’s Basilica plops over on its side and rolls over all of the collected Catholics killing the faithful like a big rolling pin made out of cosmic irony.

Beyond the obvious “imagine if they did this to any other group” argument, I need to point out that Emmerich goes out of his way to avoid showing large groups of people in this film. All of L.A. is destroyed but we only witness a few dozen actual deaths. The crowds that are killed on screen are shown from vast distances or are represented by focusing tightly on the fearful face of a known character.

The deaths at the Vatican are the only crowd shown killed in a specific, almost devious way. This is not by accident. Emmerich himself admits that the destruction of religious locations is intentional – in particular his choice in showing Christians getting it.

When asked about destroying Christ the Redeemer Emmerich explains,

"Because I'm against organized religion,"

For those playing at home, here is the math: Catholics = Let's drop one of their most precious places on their stupid heads. Islam = Let's not upset the poor dears, otherwise they may start acting wonky and hurting people - can't imagine what that would be like.

Cautions: There's death and destruction. There's some foul language and a few instances of people taking Christ's name in vain. Beyond these infractions, there's not too much that is worth being cautioned over (regarding the content).

Once you see the film read what follows:

Two items:

Congratulations! The Good News: you’ve been cast in a huge Hollywood blockbuster. The Bad News: Your character arc is that you learn to stop peeing the bed at night.

So, the world’s elite are given the chance to buy a seat on the arks. In the end the world leaders come together to allow some stranded folk into their ships. This is used to show how we maintain our humanity. Yeah, about that, the stranded people are also rich elites who also bought their way onto the arks. So, other than some Chinese slaves, the survivors of humanity are all billionaires who drained their resources from the rest of the world so they could comfortably survive the hell on Earth they left for everyone else. The worst of humanity gets to live. Nice message.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Thumping Good Read: Crown of the World

“I will not wear a Crown of Gold where my Master wore a Crown of Thorns.”
—attributed to Godfrey de Bouillon, upon being offered the crown of Jerusalem

Some time later, Godfrey awoke. He had no memory of going to sleep, but his mind was much clearer. Clearer…except for an image and a thought on the edge of his memory. He had been dreaming, dreaming very vividly, and he had dreamt something about…

Godfrey tried to call the images into his mind:

Conrad and Adelaise…and me. Jacques was there too, but not with the rest of us. And old Otto of Freising. He was telling something to Adelaise and me…

Godfrey’s heart ached, but he could recall no more. The dream faded, and Godfrey let it go wearily.

How long has it been?

It was still dark, still night. He was lying on some torn piece of cloth next to the fire. Someone was sitting next to him. His vision was a little blurry, but he stared for a few seconds and it cleared. It was Humphrey. Humphrey still looked battered and wounded, but there was a broad grin on his face.

“I was bloody right, Templar.”

Godfrey frowned, but quickly went back to staring. Frowning hurt.

“About…what?” he managed.

“You do have some of Godfrey de Bouillion in you.”

Godfrey smiled weakly. “I’m not a saint…only crazy.”

“It seems to me,” said Humphrey, “most of the saints had a touch of madness in them. I think it’s a sign that God loves them.”

Godfrey tried to laugh, but it came out as a weak gurgle.

“If you are mad,” continued Humphrey, “we need more madmen. A few more fools like you and we’d have had the Ishmaelites running.”

Godfrey could remember now what had happened. You fool, he thought with a sinking heart, You’ve gotten yourself too deep in for even Blanchefort to get you out now.

He had been waiting with the knights of Tripoli. He had at last convinced Jacques that it would be wrong to fight, so the two of them were waiting at the rear. Godfrey had seen the infidels come, and had watched, shocked, as Tripoli began riding up and down, shouting out to his men.

‘Knights of Tripoli, do you know what the king wants you to do?’ Tripoli had roared, visibly angry. ‘He wants us to run! He wants us to flee, to try to deceive the infidels. Then his knights will crush the Ishmaelites and return to Jerusalem with tales of the cowardice of the men of Tripoli. What do you say to that?’

The knights of Tripoli had not approved of the king’s orders. Their uproar had drowned out Tripoli’s voice for a while, and Godfrey had caught only snatches of his speech. He caught words like ‘glory’ and ‘honor’ often. Finally the noise subsided, and Tripoli had ridden to the head of the line. All the men of Tripoli had waited in silence as Tripoli faced the infidels. Then the count had given the order to charge.

Godfrey had sat there on his horse, still not fully believing what he was seeing. The knights of Tripoli had surged forward towards the Saracens, leaving the rest of the army behind. A few minutes later, the knights of the Hospital had broken formation to charge, and then the knights of Ibelin. Jacques had made some insulting comment about the Hospitallers, but Godfrey had been too surprised to really notice.

So Godfrey had watched as a third of the kingdom’s knights charged up the hill, while the rest of the army sat and watched. He had kept looking up towards the king’s banner, to see if Amalric were going to come to their aid.

It was then that he had realized what was happening. To Amalric, this battle was no more than his bloody game of thrones. Tripoli and D’Aissailly and Ibelin had committed treason, so those three must die. If two thousand others must die with them, so be it.

Godfrey had grown angry at that, and in his anger had thrown caution to the winds. He still felt dizzy remembering it. He had spurred forward, drawing his sword and shouting incoherently. Then he began riding up to join the knights of Tripoli, forgetting any past resolution to stay out of the battle. As he rode up the hill, Godfrey had thought he was leaving them all behind, the king and the Army and Jacques, but to his surprise he had heard the sound behind him as others followed. By the time he had reached the top a dozen others had joined him, and most of the army was behind him. ...
Crown of the World is an exciting work of historical fiction set in the days of the Crusades when Christians held the Kingdom of Jerusalem ... and when that kingdom is slowly being lost. We follow Godfrey de Montferrat, a young Templar knight who truly has the goal of being a hero and a saint. We see him strive and fail and then try again to live as a true Christian should as he encounters all manner of people, places, and situations that are new to him.

I am a sucker for good historical fiction, which I find all too often cannot match the heights now that were achieved by many writers of the past. This book was a pleasure to read as it strove before all to tell a good story without hitting the reader over the head with a Christian message. That message is necessarily part of any tale of the Crusades, especially one focused around a Templar knight and the author wisely allows it to be a subtext.

The author, Nathan Sadasivan, began the book when he was 15 and finished when he was 19. It does show a raw talent that leaves me interested in reading the rest of the proposed trilogy and, indeed, any other book that he may turn his hand to. He has a definite talent for translating history into adventure while still giving the reader something deeper to ponder.

However, due to the author's youth and inexperience, Crown of the World is not an unqualified literary masterpiece. There are far too many points of view with the reader being whisked from person to person, place to place, often without necessary context to help recall under what conditions one last encountered a character. Indeed, there is too little contextual information given as a whole. Although there are commentaries here and there from various points of view, it would have been good to have an omniscient narrator to assist tracking so many characters. These are also points that one hopes an experienced editor could have pointed out to a young author as the book was being prepared.

I would advise Sadasivan to take some time to read some of the excellent historic fiction available and to note techniques to smooth out delivery as one moves the reader through time with the story. My own favorites to recommend would include Kenneth Roberts who was acclaimed for his works about the American Revolution; Rafael Sabatini who incorporates a good feel for the time period without skimping on action or thoughtful characters, and (my absolute favorite) Samuel Shellabarger whose Prince of Foxes and The Captain from Castile are landmarks of accurate history combined with riveting adventure, memorable characters, and social commentary that holds up today.

This is all offered as constructive criticism for the author and is not intended to discourage readers. I truly enjoyed Crown of the World and plan on reading the rest of the trilogy as it is published. It does not take too much effort to overcome what I felt were distractions from an otherwise very good book. Truly it is an amazing book for a 19 year old to have written. It makes me think back to the first time I ever read Georgette Heyer's The Black Moth, written when she was 19 to amuse a sick brother. It showed great promise and was a highly entertaining work that presaged greater works to come as her potential blossomed. Crown of the World is no different in those respects. One may enjoy it for its own merits and for the promise that I hope will give us many excellent works of historical fiction in the future. Highly recommended.

This was a review book received from Arx Publishing where you may read an extended excerpt here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Doing Less So We Can Live More ... Reviewing The Power of Pause

Letting Our Souls Catch Up
By means of a diversion, we can avoid our own company twenty-four hours a day.
—Pascal, adapted from Penses

An American traveler planned a long safari to Africa. He was a compulsive man, loaded down with maps, timetables, and agendas. Men had been engaged from a local tribe to carry the cumbersome load of supplies, luggage, and “essential stuff.”

On the first morning, they all woke very early and traveled very fast and went very far. On the second morning, they all woke very early and traveled very fast and went very far. On the third morning, they all woke very early and traveled very fast and went very far. And the American seemed pleased. On the fourth morning, the tribesmen refused to move. They simply sat by a tree. The American became incensed. “This is a waste of valuable time. Can someone tell me what is going on here?”

The translator answered, “They are waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.”

The sacred necessity of stillness is an invitation to savor the pleasure of slowness and the moments of stillness or even silence, letting them work their magic.

In her book The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich talks about the idea that space can heal, that space—created by silence—represents sanity. Silence can be a fullness rather than a void. It can allow the mind to run through its paces without any need for justification. It can let us recover those parts of the self that have been so scattered, so disparate, throughout the week. To sit still is a spiritual endeavor.

To sit still is to practice Sabbath, which means, literally, to quit.

To stop.
To take a break.
To make uncluttered time.
To waste time with God.

A Powerful Pause for the Days Ahead
Find a bench to sit on. If you can, buy a new or used bench or chair just for sitting, preferably outside. Practice going to that spot at least once a day just to stop, to quit, to let your soul catch up.
This is the book that gave us the final push to actually live that commandment to make the Sabbath holy by resting. Which is a lot more difficult than one might think.

Keeping the Sabbath holy had been coming to my consciousness more and more while preparing to write a bulletin insert about the Third Commandment. In many places, The Power of Pause emphasizes this specific point which had seized my imagination in my readings:
Perhaps most interesting is the reminder from The Navarre commentary quoted above that God doesn't prescribe how we take rest, simply that we do so. It is the rest itself which is holy. That is a freeing concept that invites us to self evaluation and prayer to determine just what it is that we need to let go from the week so that we may have renewed vigor when we take it up again the next day. This can be surprisingly difficult to do, as practitioners of keeping the Sabbath will testify. It is at the moment when we are struggling not to turn on the computer or clean out that drawer or write up that report that we discover just how addictive work is to our society and in our own lives.
The book is written in very short chapters which are divided seasonally so that readers may consider the various meditations on rest in relationship to the world around them. One is encouraged to read a meditation daily or weekly to reinforce the concept. Being me, I read the entire book in one sitting. It is simply written, easy to read, and has much good food for thought.

The one criticism I have is that the author, at the publisher's bidding I imagine, quite often urges the reader to visit Loyola Press's special section to click on "Book Extras" for something applicable to the section one has just read. So here is a book that urges us to disconnect while simultaneously telling us to fire up the computer and ... connect. This was a misstep and I would urge in response that any reprints remove this "extra" which gave Tom and me a hearty laugh when I came across it.

Other than that, which is a small point indeed, I have nothing but praise for this book. It is not just for Catholics but for all Christians and, indeed, I would venture to say for all Americans. I will be keeping it on my bookshelf so I can reinforce the message that resting can be holy and rejuvenating when the modern world pulls me away as it so often does. Highly recommended.

I received The Power of Pause from Loyola Press as a review book. Clearly I'd have pushed it on you no matter where I got it or if I paid for it. It's a keeper.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Christina's story is on "Mary's Healing Touch" on Catholic Radio International

You can listen to me tell the story of how, after receiving the news of my mother's terminal cancer diagnosis last spring, Mary heard the prayers of my little saint with Down syndrome.
For the next four months, she helped us with her healing touch, to usher Mom into her waiting arms.
Listen here.

Vatican official slams "Twilight" series

"Monsignor Franco Perazzolo, of the Pontifical Council of Culture, says, "The theme of vampires in Twilight combines a mixture of excesses that as ever is aimed at young people and gives a heavy ­esoteric element. It is once again that age-old trick or ideal formula of using extremes to make an impact at the box office. This film is nothing more than a moral vacuum with a deviant message and as such should be of concern."

Book Review: 150 Bible Verses Every Catholic Should Know

PSALM 27:1-3
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me, to devour my flesh,
my adversaries and foes, they shall stumble and fall.

Though a host encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.

Saint Paul captured the essence of this beautiful psalm when he exulted in Romans 8:31, "If God is for us, who is against us?"

Notice that the psalmist does not say that those who love God will not be assailed, slandered or persecuted. Such trials come, especially to those who love God intensely, as the lives of the great saints testify. But what of it? As Scripture reminds us, all that really matters is that we remain close to the Lord, He will protect us in all the ways that truly matter. Trust in him, and don't worry about what evil may come your way.
Patrick Madrid is a familiar name in the Catholic publishing world for apologetics (defense of the faith) and also for his magazine, Envoy.

I was surprised and pleased to see that this book does not focus exclusively on apologetics, as you can see from the above excerpt. Rather, Madrid gives the reader a solid nugget of scripture, places it in context and then gives his reflection for our consideration. Most reflections are a few paragraphs while a very few are as long as a page or so. Often there is a sentence or two that has an apologetics orientation. However, it is a rare reflection that does not also offer more for us to think about as Madrid focuses on key issues for daily Christian living. Well rounded and a good book for daily reading, I have been using this as a daily devotional. Recommended.

This review was written as part of the Catholic book Reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on 150 Bible Verses Every Catholic Should Know.

Guess what? I'd have recommended it anyway.

Movie Review: The Blind Side - PG13

cross-posted from A Catholic View

Warning: Potential spoilers.

Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock) first meets Michael Oher at her son's school, which Michael also attends. She finds out that he has no place to stay and she and her husband Sean (Tim McGraw) bring him home to live with their family (they are pretty well-off because Sean owns several fast-food franchises.) Michael becomes part of their family. It is especially heartwarming when Leigh Anne refers to Michael as her son, and her children SJ and Collins call him their brother. Leigh Anne does meet with Michael's birth mother, but we never see Michael meet her, although he does go to meet her in one scene.

Michael excels at football, and several well-know coaches, including Lou Holtz, make cameos trying to attract him. But before he can play college football, he must raise his GPA, so The Tuohys hire Miss Sue (Kathy Bates) to tutor him. It is interesting that the only thing Michael scored high on is protective instincts. The college Michael wants to attend is Ole Miss, where both Sean and Leigh Anne went. The only part of the movie I did not care for is when the NCAA tries to make the Tuohy's look wrong for encouraging Michael to attend Ole Miss, but it really is where he wanted to go. As many of you know, Michael was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens right after college.

There was no objectionable content. It is a real family movie, and very heart warming.

This is definitely my favorite movie of the year, and I predict it will be an Oscar winner.

Don't Miss It!

If there's one thing I know from reading Judges ...

... it is that human nature doesn't change. Short memories about God's faithfulness, a "me first" mentality, and more. Oy veh!

I am now beginning 1st book of Samuel. Presumably for more of the same ... with a heavy dose of covenental faithfulness from God as it also begins the story of Saul, David, and Israel's monarchy.

However, these Bible commentaries are highly recommended AND worth the price. I have yet to be disappointed by one of them as I have roamed over the New and Old Testament books with their guidance.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Benedictine sisters in Missouri record new Christmas CD

I have their first CD “Echoes of Ephesus” and it is excellent. I've already ordered “Christmas at Ephesus”. You can can order either and hear samples at the site below.

A community of Benedictine sisters living in the Diocese of Kansas City - St. Joseph have released a Christmas CD titled “Christmas at Ephesus.” Proceeds from their new CD, comprised of traditional carols as well as the sisters' compositions, will go toward the building of a new monastery. The Benedictines of Mary Queen of Apostles are still new to the Kansas City Catholic community, invited by Bishop Robert W. Finn in 2006. A traditional monastic community of women who desire to emulate the Blessed Virgin Mary by living in quiet seclusion at the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus, they are a joyful group who sing while at work, at prayer or at play.

Last year the sisters recorded their first CD, “Echoes of Ephesus,” described by the prioress, Mother Therese McNamara, as a window into the life of the community. “People didn’t know about us,” she said. “But since that CD, they’ve been bringing us their prayer requests, for priests and for vocations, and priests have been coming to us for retreats.”

The sisters recently broke ground for a new monastery near Gower, Missouri. The proceeds from the Christmas CD will go toward that building plan.

story here

Friday, November 20, 2009

Vatican sinks teeth into vampire film Twilight

The Vatican has condemned The Twilight Saga: New Moon, a Hollywood teen film about vampires and werewolves, as “dangerous” and morally empty.

New Moon is the long-awaited sequel to the highly successful Twilight film of last year, and opens in Britain today.

It tells the story of a vampire who breaks the heart of a high school student, Bella (Kristen Stewart). She finds solace with her werewolf friend, before travelling to Italy to pursue the vampire (Robert Pattinson).

The film, above, contained “an explosive mix” of good-looking protagonists dabbling in the supernatural, said Monsignor Franco Perazzolo of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture. The film’s occult imagery represented a “moral void more dangerous than any deviant message”, he said.

story here

cross-posted from A Catholic View

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Catholic writer explains conversion, discusses new book

The only writer to have interviewed two Popes: John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger, has just released his latest book, “Why I Believe.” In it, Vittorio Messori explains how he went from being an agnostic to becoming one of the most prestigious Catholic apologists of his day.

Messori, who wrote the book, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” as well as “The Ratzinger Report,” spoke with reporter Luis del Espanyol and granted this exclusive interview to CNA. In it, he explains his reasons for writing this new book and also recounts the story of his conversion.

Full Interview Here

cross-posted from A Catholic View

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Christmas Carol

Stingy Scrooge and hungry Londoners, scary spirits and creepy doorknockers, we have all seen countless versions of Charles Dickens’s novella, “A Christmas Carol.” It’s been trivialized in a musical,” and lampooned with puppets. The last thing one expects is for the 3-D Disney version to be among the most faithful versions of the immortal tale of avarice vs. charity. But wait.

Rather than reducing the story line to a vehicle to showcase special effects and off color slapstick as do many Christmas-themed films, “A Christmas Carol” returns to the heart of the play. It offers a piercing glimpse at of a man in a prison of his own making. Enter ghostly visitors to quite literally lend a hand in breaking free in time to celebrate Christmas. Overcoming the limitations of the unrealistic figures, the emotional power of the acting and use of Dickens’s original dialogue maintain the strength of the story against the intensity of the special effects. Wild flights through the streets of London and unanticipated bits of levity kept this film from being a downer, and are likely the very things Dickens had intended with his descriptive passages. This may be the film which best conforms to the writers’ original intent.

Though secondary scenes from the book are not shown, and some liberties are taken, the central scenes are played with respect for their original meaning, and powerful use of close-ups. Particularly moving is the scene where Bob Crachit is brought face to face with the invisible visitor Scrooge as he mourns the loss of his son Tiny Tim, poignantly aiding Scrooge’s discovery of the secret of a life well lived. Mature themes of charity, repentance, and greed are portrayed in a way, which reaches the youngest of viewers.

Although the story already has strong Christian moral themes, the filmmakers added completely appropriate Christian elements to the film including; the score’s rendition of the “Ave Maria” as the Spirit of Christmas Past touched Scrooge’s heart in blessing, and an aerial view of a London church with worshippers streaming in. As Scrooge beholds the gold cross on the church’s steeple, he exclaims “how beautiful” to the approval of the Ghost of Christmas Present. The only disappointment was when the converted Scrooge passed a church on Christmas Day without entering himself.
Jim Carrey is at his flexible best in “A Christmas Carol” he scowls as the curmudgeonly Scrooge, is sprightly and winsome as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and laughs uproariously as the Ghost of Christmas Present. His personality is a varied as his characters, yet does not overpower them. Thanks to Carey’s physicality, Scrooge is dramatically overwhelmed by the powers of the spirits, who remind him that there is a world where money has no power. Colin Firth is charming as Scrooge’s nephew, adding an authentic accent to the film.

Beautiful orchestration weaves together favorite Christmas carols, and keep the fantasy alive. The credits roll with a new Christmas song sung by Andrea Boccelli, helping to make this film a new Christmas classic.
The teenagers who accompanied me took turns hiding their eyes from and laughing at the up-close-and-personal ghosts, enjoyed the 3-D which gave them the feeling of actually flying. They loved it.

As long as you do not bring children who could be frightened by the larger than life ghosts, this is the family film to ring in the Christmas season. Some immodest dress and a slightly provocative dancer. No language. Brief violence and frightening scenes.

My review is also up at Mercatornet.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Music Review: Rain...A Tribute to the Beatles

cross-posted from A Catholic View

This tribute band performed most of the Beatles' hits, from their early years to their later years. There were a couple of big screens on either side of the stage, as well as one behind the stage. It was cool how they integrated themselves into Beatles clips.

For their earlier works, they did especially well with 'I Want to Hold Your Hand', 'Hard Day's Night' and 'Can't Buy Me Love'. For their later works, they did especially well with 'Let it Be', 'Hey Jude' and 'Yesterday', which was originally titled 'Scrambled Eggs'! LOL

As a Beatles fan, I really enjoyed Rain. I recommend that anyone who likes the Beatles check the site below to see when Rain might be in your area.

On AMC Sunday November 15 7PM

For listings of further installments of the series and encore showings, click here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Review of "The 13th Day"

In The 13th Day, a timely message of Fatima has been retold for a new generation. Directors Ian and Dominic Higgins, accomplished more than a pious revival of a fond moment in Catholic history, they re-cast familiar images of a story whose relevance has grown with time. Told from the perspective of Sister Lucia dos Santos who is writing her memoirs in her Spanish convent in 1932, the film emphasizes the emotional turmoil, which ensued when she had a heavenly visitor in 1917, and the personal cost of being Our Lady’s messenger. The term 13th Day refers to the series of six apparitions of Our Lady, beginning on May 13, 1917, on the thirteenth day of each month, ending on October 13, 1917 with the miracle of the sun visible to over 80,000 people, according to newspaper articles.

The Higgins brothers' background in photography, as evidenced by their use of the Chiaroscuro technique, in which faces emerge from darkness into light, emphasizes the theme of light that is central to The 13th Day. Character’s faces emerge from shadowed darkness, to black and white, to muted color and as they respond to the heavenly messenger portrayed in blinding light. This technique may not appeal to those who prefer a traditional portrayal of this story, yet it has a haunting quality achieving an arresting emotional impact. Interestingly, not only are Our Lady and the children flooded with light and color, but those who come to accept the apparitions also take on a tinge of color. Clearly, this technique evokes the phenomenon of rainbow light that washed over the eyewitnesses in Fatima on the 13th of August 1917

The portrayal of Our Lady is breathtaking, and there is a stunning ‘holy card moment’ pausing to show the traditional portrait of the three children kneeling at her feet at the base of the shrub oak. The high point of the film is the miracle of the sun, showing the brilliance of its colors, its wildly erratic movement, and its menacing plunge towards earth, terrifying tens of thousands of witnesses. The film captures this with intense realism, focusing on the intensity of terror and joy felt by the witnesses. The 13th Day shows in passing the Third Secret of Fatima, where a figure in white (assumed to be Pope John Paul II) ascending a hill amidst the devastation of famine and war towards a cross where he is shot.
The musical score is lush, adding tenderness to the rare moments of innocent joy what is a somewhat unsettling film. Hints of Allegri’s “Misere” add a touch of transcendence to the emotional soundtrack, and it is one of the best features of the film.
The young Portuguese actors who play Lucia and Francisco convey a mixture of simplicity and emotional strength for their roles as innocent souls entrusted by Our Lady with the most critical and terrifying of secrets. Jacinta is seen for the innocent six year old she was and has a minor role.

The vivid visions of hell and trials endured by the children are harsh for younger viewers, though profoundly important to the story. One forgets that the Fatima children accepted suffering for the sake of sinners, and the filmmakers remind us that Lucia and her cousins were immediately put to the test with their family members. Children dealing with broken families and schoolyard violence might welcome a film which shows children who see through the darkness into the light of heaven. In fact, all children raised in today’s Godless public square would benefit from the message, which calls them to lift up their eyes to heaven where a loving Mother awaits their prayers. Two generations of Catholics, who have been raised on ‘Catholic lite’ CCD programs, need a wake-up call on what it means to be the Church Militant. In the face of a darkening world landscape, The 13th Day is just that.
The 13th Day reminds viewers not only of the message of Fatima, but of the price paid by the young visionaries so honored by Our Lady, and draws striking parallels between hostile governments and media of 1917 and persecution of the Church in our own time. It is a somber film for a sobering message. Recommended for age 8 and up. No language or nudity, but scenes of hell and children being persecuted may be disturbing for younger viewers.

Highly recommended.
Leticia Velasquez

Heads Up for a Good Read ... and a Good Listen

The God Conspiracy
This book just finished at Podiobooks. I've gotta love a conspiracy-theory, techno thriller where so many of the characters are Christians. Nothing like a bunch o' manly men stopping for a quick prayer before going out to whack the bad guys, right?
One e-mail. Five lines. 4,000 dead.

And it is only just beginning…

When a small boy in Iowa forwards a mysterious email from ‘God’ to a small group of friends, he unwittingly releases a trigger that sends blood pouring throughout his farming community.

Thousands more are dead across the country in dozens of simultaneous terror attacks and the government blames fundamentalists who want to trigger the Apocalypse.

FBI Agent Joe Unes reluctantly teams with reclusive Internet radio host Barney Ison (from Sharon K. Gilbert’s The Armageddon Strain) to expose the plot -- and discovers that he's not contending against flesh and blood.
Angel Time
An assassin who has his work down to an art and is sought in many countries by the authorities suddenly encounters an angel who offers him a chance for redemption by traveling back in time where his skills may be used on the side of good. I am finding this riveting and Ann Rice's angelic theology is on target (not surprising as one of her cited sources is Peter Kreeft). This is just plain good story telling which, so far, should give Dan Brown fans something to read which also conveys a good deal of truth.
Anne Rice returns to the mesmerizing storytelling that has captivated readers for more than three decades in a tale of unceasing suspense set in time past—a metaphysical thriller about angels and assassins.

The novel opens in the present. At its center: Toby O’Dare—a contract killer of underground fame on assignment to kill once again. A soulless soul, a dead man walking, he lives under a series of aliases—just now: Lucky the Fox—and takes his orders from “The Right Man.”

Into O’Dare’s nightmarish world of lone and lethal missions comes a mysterious stranger, a seraph, who offers him a chance to save rather than destroy lives. O’Dare, who long ago dreamt of being a priest but instead came to embody danger and violence, seizes his chance. Now he is carried back through the ages to thirteenth-century England, to dark realms where accusations of ritual murder have been made against Jews, where children suddenly die or disappear . . . In this primitive setting, O’Dare begins his perilous quest for salvation, a journey of danger and flight, loyalty and betrayal, selflessness and love.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Flannery O'Connor ... and Back Again

I am continually surprised at the way people and events are connected both in the big wide world and in my personal experience. My own Rose has a passion for Nathaniel Hawthorne's writing which, combined with her and Hannah's love of The Scarlet Letter, made me pick up and read that book which high school English had taught me to despise.

I found a complex and interesting book which made me admire Hawthorne's character as much as his writing. Additionally, I found new depths when Heather Ordover at the CraftLit podcast recently featured the book read aloud by her listeners as well as including her enlightening commentary. Much was made there of Hawthorne's understanding of women as people. I wrote to Heather about his daughter, Rose Hawthorne, and how his influence must have contributed greatly to her character. Rose converted to Catholicism and in 1900 founded an order to care for inoperable cancer patients.
The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne is an American religious community, founded on December 8, 1900 by two extraordinary women. Rose Hawthorne, daughter of American novelist Nathanial Hawthorne, began the work at age 45. She moved into a tenement in the poorest area of New York City, and began nursing incurable cancer patients. Rose, later to become Mother Alphonsa, was a convert to Catholicism. This work was the practical fulfillment of her conversion.
About halfway through the excellent The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O'Connor's Spiritual Journey, I have discovered with pleasure that Flannery O'Connor put her finger on a specific moment of influence. O'Connor had agreed to edit and write the introduction for a book about a terribly deformed little girl (Mary Ann) who nonetheless lived a life of joy, written by an Atlanta chapter of the order who approached her. There is much food for thought in "The Abbess" about the role of "innocent suffering" in the life of the Christian and the life of the Church, prompted by O'Connor's own thoughts and writings while working on the book. In considering the Hawthorne connection, which I find interesting for all the threads I see converging as well as for the reminder that we often do not realize the good we are doing, I include this excerpt:
It is true that Mary Ann suffered, but Flannery did not believe she suffered in vain. Rather her suffering was a thread woven within the larger fabric of believers called the Communion of Saints. In the introduction, Flannery described the Communion of Saints as "the action by which charity grows invisibly among us, entwining the living and the dead."

On May 14, 1961, she explained to a friend that "the living and the dead" referred to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was her inspiration for the introduction. Long before Mary Ann was born, Hawthorne had written about visiting the children's ward in a Liverpool workhouse. There, according to his description, he met a "wretched, pale, half-torpid child of indeterminate sex, about six years old." Hawthorne admitted that he found the child repulsive, but for some mysterious reason, the child took a liking to him. The child insisted that Hawthorne pick him up. Despite his aversion, Hawthorne did what the child wanted: I should never have forgiven myself if I had repelled its advances."

According to Flannery, Mother Alphonsa believed that these were the greatest words her father ever wrote. And many years after Mother Alphonsa had died, Flannery perceived a mystical connection existing between Hawthorne's picking up the child, his daughter working among the dying and the sisters caring for a little girl with a disfigured face.
There is a direct line between the incident in the Liverpool workhouse, the work of Hawthorne's daughter, and Mary Ann -- who stands not only for herself but for all the other examples of human imperfection and grotesquerie which the Sisters of Rose Hawthorne's order spend their lives caring for. Their work is the tree sprung from Hawthorne's small act of Christlikeness and Mary Ann its flower.
Flannery O'Connor dedicated the book to the memory of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

My review of Genesis by Bernard Beckett ...

... which is a SF novella may be found at SFFaudio. Short version: a quick read full of thought provoking ideas worth pondering. Long version ... go to SFFaudio!

Friday, November 13, 2009

New CD featuring Pope Benedict's voice previewed in Rome

Under the gilded ceiling of a Roman basilica, a choir performed while the taped voice of Pope Benedict XVI sang the Marian hymn "Regina Coeli" ("Queen of Heaven").

The performance marked the press launch of "Alma Mater," a CD featuring the recording of the pope leading the "Regina Coeli" prayer in St. Peter's Square on May 1, 2005, the first time he had led the hymn as pope.

The CD features eight pieces. They each begin with six lines from the Marian Litany of Loreto and then segue into a new composition of classical music with the pope's voice overlaid, usually reciting a Marian prayer or talking about Marian devotion.

The disc was co-produced by the Pauline Fathers' Multimedia San Paolo and Geffen Records, which is part of Universal Music Group. It was scheduled for worldwide release Nov. 30.

story here

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Happy 50th Anniversary, Fr Benedict Groeshel

A moving video tribute to Fr Benedict Groeschel, on his 50th anniversary of the priesthood is up at the OSV blog. The video is produced by Catholic independent filmakers,  Grassroots Films, who brought us "Fishers of Men" and "The Human Experience".
STO LAT Fr Groeschel.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Book Review: "An Amish Christmas"

An Amish Christmas: December in Lancaster County
by Beth Wiseman, Kathleen Fuller, and Barbara Cameron
Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009

Looking for some sweet, heartwarming stories to lose yourself in this holiday season? An Amish Christmas may be just what you are looking for. Beth Wiseman, Kathleen Fuller, and Barbara Cameron, each established authors in their own right, have teamed up to write three novellas guaranteed to touch your heart and provide some quality leisure time. The three novellas, "A Miracle for Miriam," "A Choice to Forgive," and "One Baby" all take place in the same Amish community, focusing on different characters within it.

"A Miracle for Miriam" focuses on Miriam and her struggle with her own self-worth. Can she believe a young man who once cruelly rejected her is honest with his intentions and interest now? Can she forgive him for his insensitivity? Can she believe that she is beautiful and worthy of love?

"A Choice to Forgive" centers on Lydia, whose husband died two years before. When her husband's brother, her first true love, returns after 18 years away, she is forced to face their past together and the truth of what actually happened all those years ago. Can she forgive both her husband and her brother for the choice that they made?

"One Baby" features Sarah and her husband David. Sarah miscarried a baby the previous Christmas Eve and her heart is still heavy with grief. When this Christmas Eve finds them housing a very pregnant English woman and her husband who were stranded in a storm, she must face her own pain and anger at God and find the courage to help the lost couple in their own fear.

These three stories deal with forgiveness and trusting God. They both entertain and instruct. They are well-worth spending some time with this Christmas season. There is also a very useful reading guide in the back of the book for personal reflection or use in a book group.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Movie Review: A Christmas Carol - PG

I've seen quite a few variations of "A Christmas Carol" and I felt that this one was most like the version which starred Alastair Sim. I have to admit that I had my reservations about Jim Carrey, because he has played some fairly crude and vulgar roles, but I have to give him credit; he not only played Scrooge, he also played the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, and he did very well at all of them. The animation was AWESOME, and the music was excellent(Andrea Bocelli!).
The only omission that I noticed was the ghost of Christmas past did not show him the scene where his sister Fan died. I don't have any real content warnings. I took my nephews, ages 9-11, and they really enjoyed it.

I heartily recommend this version of "A Christmas Carol". Definitely see this for the Christmas season!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Priest’s new book challenges men to learn ‘true manhood’ by following Christ

Pennsylvania Catholic priest Fr. Larry Richards, aiming to clear up “gender confusion” and to challenge men to pursue holiness, has released a new book titled “Be A Man: Become the Man God Created You to Be.”

In the book, Fr. Richards recounts his own efforts to learn “true manhood” and shares inspiring stories from men he has counseled and served in his decades as a priest, a press release from Ignatius Press says.

He encourages men to appreciate the differences between men and women, to set the right goals in life, to acknowledge personal faults and limitations, and to be masculine without being “macho.”

Be A Man looks at King David, St. Paul, and Jesus as role models for men.

“Jesus Christ Himself reveals to us what it is to be a man,” Fr. Richards said. “It is about taking the one life that God has given us and give it away. When men are invited to die for others, they put others’ needs above their own. To be like Christ, and like all great men, will cost men their very lives.”

story here