Friday, December 18, 2015

The Force Awakens Review for Younglings

This is a letter that was written to a family with younglings that are quite interested in whether The Force Awakens is appropriate for them.  

I was very happy to be able to see the new movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens last night with my two boys who are ages 10 and 14.  Together, we watch a lot of Star Wars movies and cartoons because it is a good story with interesting characters and exciting battles.
            The new movie is just as exciting.  There are lots of new characters and aliens that make it really fun.  Rey, the young lady who seems to be the center of the movie, is a clever person that has lived on her own in the desert for many years.  She doesn’t complain about how harsh it is to live there, but she hopes for the day when she will be rescued.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Jedi Lessons from Skellig Michael

The last time we saw our Jedi Master, he was in triumphant celebration of the destruction of Death Star II. He was also in mourning for his newly-reclaimed father. His journey as a Jedi and as a man was headed in a unique direction after these events. In the poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Luke is conspicuously absent. We do not know why, but speculation abounds. We do know that Mark Hamill was seen filming at a remote location in Ireland. This location will become part of our enduring fandom consciousness, just as the desert of Tunisia, the glaciers of Norway or the redwoods of Northern California have. We are talking about Skellig Michael, an ancient island in Ireland that was once home to Christian monastics.

Skellig Michael, Co. Kerry, Ireland Monastic Island 
I’ve never been to Ireland, though it certainly is on my short list of things to do when I am able. My family left there in 1839, and has never been back. But there is a bit of a yearning to see the ancestral land, to see where I came from. Perhaps some of my grandparents’ witticisms would make more sense in the right context. However, I have found a suitable tutor for the things that Irish lands teach inherently. Within my Church, and especially during my years at seminary, I developed a healthy admiration for the monastic lifestyle. I did not become a monastic, nor did I ever fantasize about it, but I was enlightened by its way of looking at the world, untainted by material cares and the avarice of our modern society. I developed a love for its simplicity and desire to know God in His creation. These are some of the things that my family sacrificed as they escaped starvation and looked to the New World.

With filming of The Force Awakens being done on Skellig Michael, we have an amazing opportunity to center down and contemplate the lives that were lived over there.

Wisdim of the Celtic Saints book cover 
In a nice little book entitled Wisdom of the Celtic Saints by Edward Sellner, the author enlightens the worldview of those who settled Skellig Michael. I offer these, not to convince you of their truth, but to give it an opportunity to compare to what we know about the Jedi. Celtic Christian spirituality has a love and respect for the physical environment. There is a deep love of learning (see How the Irish Saved Civilization). The land led them to an innate yearning to explore the unknown. While being a generally gregarious and joyous people, they have a love of silence and solitude. There is the feeling that time is a sacred reality, created and redeemed by God. In fact, there is an Irish saying that “When God made time, He made plenty of it.” This spirituality has an appreciation of ordinary life. There is a great value placed on kinship relationships. For them, life is about communing with and preparing souls for the world to come.

For reasons to be revealed (maybe) in a few weeks, Luke Skywalker has fled to this remote location. We do not know why, nor even where the land is in the galaxy (though there was a huuuuuge hint in one of the YA novels released on Force Friday). Perhaps in the story, it is not even an island, though I can’t imagine why the producers would go to such extremes, were they not to use the natural beauty of this ancient settlement.

Skellig Michael is a crag that is situated 12 kilometers off of the Irish mainland, perched on the edge of the European landmass. With dramatic heights of stone and forbidding eddies of water, there were no inhabitants here until several monks sought refuge from the world in its clefts. Sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries, they took up residence here and coaxed the environment to support their aesthetic endeavors. This small community, never numbering more than a dozen, lasted until the thirteenth century. It continued to be venerated as holy ground for many years afterward, since the mortal remains of so many holy men are buried there, awaiting the resurrection.

The seclusion of the monastery was no surety from attacks from the outside world. At least once, in 823, the island was plundered by the fierce Vikings. The sacred implements were carried off, and one monk was kidnapped in order to be plied for information about greater treasures. This brave monk named Etgal maintained his silence unto his own death, protecting his brothers with his very life.
Normally, monastics live on a vegetarian diet. This is still true in my particular Church’s devotion – I do not know about other traditions. This palate could not be maintained in such a harsh environment. The monastic brotherhood of Skellig Michael lived off of some amount of gardening, which was hard-won, as well as the fish, birds and eggs that were laid on the island.
Beehive Huts 
As the island was tamed, three terraces emerged through the labor of the residents. On one were the gardens. Imagine the wind whipping their robes as they tilled unwilling soil and as sea spray seemed to come from all directions. To be a monastic is a heroic effort. Further up, there was a terrace that housed the oratories (monastic chapels) and beehive shaped huts for living. More secluded hermetic living spaces were established even higher on the two peaks of the island. From here, the monks could both physically and spiritually leave the bounds of the earth and strive toward the God above. From here, they could also provide protection from invasion, since they had a view of the sea for miles around. One monk, contemplating the storms surrounding his cell penned these lines in the 9th century.

The wind is rough tonight
tossing the white combed ocean.
I need not dread fierce Vikings
crossing the Irish Sea.

We cannot be sure at this time if the history of the island enlightens the story of Luke Skywalker. For years, the Jedi have been likened to monks and a religious order that contemplates and communes with the otherworldly. From time to time, they have lived in community at the Jedi Temple. Occasionally, they lived in solitude to touch the Force more deeply in their lives. In all things, they are concerned with spiritual fulfillment and the spread of the knowledge of truth. In times past, the Jedi were more in touch with the galaxy. It was Sidious’ machinations that led to their involvement in galactic politics and their service as generals in the Clone War. He brought them out from their cells and contemplative life and laid waste to them as they abandoned millennia-old traditions and teachings. For the monks of Skellig Michael, they believed themselves to be fleeing just as destructive a power – the world.

To say that monastics flee the world is not inaccurate. In Christian monasticism, those men and women leave every day society and the comforts of modern convenience to live as the angels do – in the undistracted presence of God and away from all earthly cares. There is no desire to gain wealth, power or prestige. They desire to simply live in perfect love with God.

None of this is to say that they hate the world. Far from it. Some have said that monastics spend their time apart for the life of the world. They see the beauty of this creation. When we think about Skellig Michael, and other dramatic landscapes, we can see the inherent beauty and grandeur of great and small things. The high promontories of the island, down to the delicateness of the grasses that find purchase in the clefts, each are imbued with beauty. In this, the monks saw God’s hand in creating that beauty.

In the literature of Star Wars, we hear about the beauty and culture of Alderaan, and the care that the Wookiees have for the trees of Kashyyyk. We see the contrast in the sterile halls and bleak landscapes of the Empire, destroying beauty for the sake of power and domination. We can be sympathetic to the Rebels here, and see that the same love of beauty is available in our own lives.
Today, Skellig Michael still draws tourists and pilgrims to its rocky shores. It can be visited for a few months out of the year, though tours do not run when the weather is excessively cold or windy. I imagine that is a lot of the time on this ocean refuge. Still, it is possible to visit and see the place where men toiled for 700 years and where our Jedi Master sought his own refuge.

A division of the UN, UNESCO has designated the island as a World Heritage Site. They say that “heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.” This provides protection for the monastic settlement and recognizes the enduring value of the community. May we treat this site with care and respect in the years to come, while also contemplating what lessons it may offer to us in our personal lives.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Book Review: May the Faith be With You: 180 Devotions That Are Out of This World

For many years, the Star Wars franchise has been involved in the publishing industry, giving kids and adults alike the chance to use their minds to create fabulous foreign lands.  Those writings have saturated our society, and I am thankful for that.  Now, the venerable Zonderkids, longtime purveyors of excellent materials for the development of Christian youth, has produced a lovely little book that explores the life of a student of the force.
            May the Faith Be with You is a devotional book that takes the biblical story of salvation and brings it alive for the young reader.  It is a book of beautiful simplicity.  The captivating cover calls us to attention, letting us know that the celestial story of our Lord can become one of our own.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Anakin’s Full Repentence

Years ago, there was an amazing English teacher in my high school that treated us students a bit differently – like people who could think analytically and judge the merits of ideas and experiences. I think I did some of my best academic work for him, and quite often, Mr Wentworth comes to mind when I am contemplating Anakin’s ultimate end (for now) on the Second Death Star. Mr Wentworth questioned how redemption was offered and possible for Anakin at the end of his life since most of his life had been in the service of darkness and evil. It is indeed a tough question. Does it give us the possibility of living a terribly immoral life and stealing a space in Heaven through a few words? If so, then where is the motivation for goodness in this world? I think the answer is much deeper and existential.
We are called to be unified to the light side in this world. To do good, to love others more than we love ourselves, and to give all that we have for the welfare of our neighbor. To be virtuous, moral, compassionate, beings carrying the image of the divine. Those things call us to empty ourselves of selfishness and deception, both of which might be seen as virtues in our modern society. When a lone Jedi fights against the Code of the Order, it leads to personal pain with repercussions on all involved. This is seen in the way Anakin’s relationship with Padmé progresses (there has been a fair bit written about the unenviable pathology of that union). It is when the will of the person and the will of goodness align that true joy and eternal happiness are found. I think of the examples of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan when ruminating about those who have lived the good Jedi life and aligned their wills to that of the Force itself.
A few weeks ago, a friend gave me a framed poster that has really got me thinking further about the good life and the potential of redemption from one’s sins. The more I look at it, the more things I see. It is called The Return of the Prodigal Son and was painted by Rembrandt some time right before his death in the mid-17th century. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a common enough story that I think many people know it (and ought to, if they are thinking deeply about the tragedy of Anakin the Fearful). A father has two sons. The younger takes his inheritance while the father is yet alive, and blows it all on loose living. Finding himself in a sad state, he goes back to his father in full repentance. His Father embraces him and holds a feast in his honor for his return. The older brother, who never left home, becomes very jealous, finding no joy in his brother’s return. The father tells him that all should celebrate the return of a fallen brother.

In the painting, we see the moment that the son is embraced by his father. Our eyes are naturally drawn to the lighter parts of the scene. First, the bright and loving face of the father as he receives his long-lost son. The younger son, just back from doing terrible things, is truly and humbly penitent. We can hear the depth of sorrow and turning of the son in the words of one of the hymns of my Church, “When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am,/ I tremble at the fearful day of judgment./ But trusting in Thy living kindness, like David I cry to Thee:/ Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy.”

Our eyes then drift over to the right side of the scene. The older brother who is jealous that forgiveness is so easy. He also does not think about the thing in his own heart that he may need to excise. After all, he has his rights! Here is the celebrated question – how is it that the son who lived a God-pleasing life in all respects, and who faithfully served his father, could display such envy? This is because the older son had everything given to him in order to love the father, but made an idol of his blessings.

We drift further back into the painting and see the attendants of the household ready to obey the commands of the father. What should they do? Put the boy in prison or prepare a feast? Feast, of course! The son was sprung from the prison of his own making. But keep looking. More witnesses appear from the background. A man emerges from the shadows and then a woman a few steps above all. They are the witnesses to the greatest miracle ever to come from a human – utter penitence for profligate living that is met by absolute forgiveness from the father.

So, on our circuitous route (which is either a function of my brain or the Orthodox way of teaching), I hope you have seen that Anakin’s place with the blue shiny people is not mere sentimentality. It is the embodiment of a true change of the soul and self sacrificial love. Redemption is not about the magic formula of saying the right things before expiration, but the true turning of the depths of the soul to what is good. With Anakin losing the mask of hatred and destruction, the scars of his battle filled life are still present on his face. However, his heart had truly turned from that evil. The unending love of his son was enough to win him back.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Returning to the Jedi Temple of our Heart

Force and Faith Sabers Square

This post contains a spoiler for Marvel’s Star Wars: Darth Vader #2.

We gather together quite often to play in the Star Wars sandbox because it is familiar and comfortable to many of us. With the changing tides and seasons of our lives, there is a constant in these stories we love so much. Even though new stories are created and fresh characters come along, there is something that is always the same and familiar. We return again and again as younglings enthralled by the stories of those who have travelled the stars weaving their glorious tales.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

An Unfinished Trilogy – Life, Redemption and Legacy
For all of George Lucas’ flip-floppery on whether there would ever be a sequel trilogy, the form of the story demands that a third installment be created.  It asks for it, it begs for it, and it demands it.  The Skywalker story is not complete.  From one point of view, we have Anakin’s rise, fall and redemption.  But we are missing the story of his legacy.  Every one of us will leave a legacy – a story that can only be told after our death.  So, from my point of view, we have Anakin’s life, his redemption and – and then, nothing.  The Skywalker baton was passed on to his son, but what he did with that legacy is a story as yet untold.  Life, redemption, legacy.  A trilogy that can be reflective of every life.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Selfless Season of Communing with the Force

There has been awakening. Have you felt it? There is a stirring in every fangirl and fanboy. Something is about to change. I completely expect that our minds will be blown in ten short months when the screens explode with the next chapter in the Star Wars saga. The change will be something impossible to guess at this moment. It will be a surprise that makes us examine our own presuppositions – if only for the movie, but maybe even for our personal lives. We will be challenged to grow from the experience, after this excruciatingly long wait.