Ex Machina

Ex MachinaAt my wife’s encouragement, I went in on Amazon Prime a few weeks ago. I found this movie I had heard good things about. It’s a moody, intelligent, surprising film that demonstrates very smart people (and a robot) doing very cruel and not thought-out things.

A very minimal cast is placed in a hideaway beyond a Norwegian glacier, and the test is on: does the beautiful “machina” have authentic self-awareness? Nathan, the reclusive misanthropic boss, plucks young Caleb from his programming cubicle to test Ava. The first question I have, shared by Caleb, is how can he deliver the Turing Test if he already knows Ava is a machine.

In an era of in-your-face special effects, the only one in the film involves hundreds of screen shots of a feminine robot who has a human face and hands, but otherwise her inner workings are ever-present to the viewer. Except when she dresses up.

The acting is fine. The script is tight. The plot is best of all–maybe the best arc for a film I can recall. Some things are wholly predictable, like that servant who never speaks a word. Some elements in the final third of the film are surprising, if not shocking.

There is a level of brutality and cruelty in Nathan. Not just his bluster and arrogance, but also plots within plots. The viewer gets the notion that just when you think he’s been circumvented or fooled, he turns the tables and his hand is (literally) at someone’s throat.

A science fiction specialty, the damsel in distress, is cunningly turned on its head in this film–and that’s all the spoiler you get from me.

Some robots are shown as naked females, and that’s less about sex than a disturbing sense of combined vulnerability and power. The language can get rough at times. And there’s no discussion whatsoever about God or faith–the things that elevate humanity above our animal roots. A sensitive person might be upset by this film. But if you have the stomach for it, I think it’s very good viewing.

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Laudato Si 236: The Eucharist

Earth from Apollo 8The encyclical letter Laudato Si is available here on the Vatican website.

236. It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation. Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became (human) and gave himself as food for his creatures.

Food, meal.

The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter. He comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world of ours. In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God.

A thread of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin? That’s what I hear. Woven in are these 2003 and 2006 insights from recent popes:

Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love: “Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world”.[Ecclesia de Eucharistia 8] The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration: in the bread of the Eucharist, “creation is projected towards divinization, towards the holy wedding feast, towards unification with the Creator himself”.[Benedict XVI, Homily for the Mass of Corpus Domini (15 June 2006): AAS 98 (2006), 513] Thus, the Eucharist is also a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation.

Alas, not all see it this way. Sometimes the substances of this world are just used, and the ritual perpetuated as part of an inward vector in the Church. But I think Pope Francis has a better instinct for us to consider.

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Laudato Si 235: Sacraments, “A Privileged Way”

Earth from Apollo 8The encyclical letter Laudato Si is available here on the Vatican website. Pope  Francis makes the case for sacraments utilizing the substances of nature.

235. The Sacraments are a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life. Through our worship of God, we are invited to embrace the world on a different plane. Water, oil, fire and colors are taken up in all their symbolic power and incorporated in our act of praise.

Some of the “stuff” of sacraments are wholly natural–like water. Sometimes human hands are at work in the making of bread, wine, and oil.

Pope Francis also mentions the human hand:

The hand that blesses is an instrument of God’s love and a reflection of the closeness of Jesus Christ, who came to accompany us on the journey of life. Water poured over the body of a child in Baptism is a sign of new life.

These natural aspects of the sacraments connect them–and us–to the natural world.

Encountering God does not mean fleeing from this world or turning our back on nature. This is especially clear in the spirituality of the Christian East. “Beauty, which in the East is one of the best loved names expressing the divine harmony and the model of humanity transfigured, appears everywhere: in the shape of a church, in the sounds, in the colours, in the lights, in the scents”.[Orientale Lumen 11] For Christians, all the creatures of the material universe find their true meaning in the incarnate Word, for the Son of God has incorporated in his person part of the material world, planting in it a seed of definitive transformation. “Christianity does not reject matter. Rather, bodiliness is considered in all its value in the liturgical act, whereby the human body is disclosed in its inner nature as a temple of the Holy Spirit and is united with the Lord Jesus, who himself took a body for the world’s salvation”.[Orientale Lumen 11]

The document cited here is John Paul II’s 1995 apostolic letter on the eastern churches. There is also testimony from the West; I think of that fine verse by the Irish poet Joseph Plunkett.

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.

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Laudato Si 234: Finding Goodness in the World

Earth from Apollo 8The encyclical letter Laudato Si is available here on the Vatican website. Another saint guides us to a wide encounter of God outside of the “S” sacraments. Note here we are talking about the goodness of life experiences, not the objects themselves:

234. Saint John of the Cross taught that all the goodness present in the realities and experiences of this world “is present in God eminently and infinitely, or more properly, in each of these sublime realities is God”.[Cántico Espiritual, XIV, 5] This is not because the finite things of this world are really divine, but because the mystic experiences the intimate connection between God and all beings, and thus feels that “all things are God”.[Ibid.] Standing awestruck before a mountain, he or she cannot separate this experience from God, and perceives that the interior awe being lived has to be entrusted to the Lord: “Mountains have heights and they are plentiful, vast, beautiful, graceful, bright and fragrant. These mountains are what my Beloved is to me. Lonely valleys are quiet, pleasant, cool, shady and flowing with fresh water; in the variety of their groves and in the sweet song of the birds, they afford abundant recreation and delight to the senses, and in their solitude and silence, they refresh us and give rest. These valleys are what my Beloved is to me”.[Cántico Espiritual, XIV, 6-7]

John is leading people to the notion that our experiences, our encounters with goodness and wonder are part of how God communicates with his daughters and sons. You don’t expect to find everything in a book while enjoying between four walls and under a roof, did you?

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The Armchair Liturgist: Groundhogs, Candles, or Crêpes?

How do you observe the turning point of winter, the Feast of the Presentation, or Pancake Day? It’s a holy enough day to bump an ordinary Sunday, but not to compel midweek Mass attendance. To me that suggests just another ordinary day, though with white vestments.

Does your parish bless candles, and/or are people invited to bring candles from home? In one parish I served, the administration bought the candles, blessed them then sold them to parishioners.

blueberry pancakesIs this a good day for a pancake breakfast? Or is it just another day at the parish center? By the way, have any scraps of Christmas décor been left, or at least, brought out today?

Sit in the purple chair and render judgment: how would you dictate the observance of February 2?

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Looking At Misericordia: Idoneity

Christ the King Almada

This past December, Pope Francis offered a reflection on the word “misericordia,” or mercy. The reflection was an acrostic, a device in which each letter in the word is given its own word. The Holy Father gives us “I” for idoneity. What does he mean? Let’s read:

2. Idoneity and sagacity: idoneity, or suitability, entails personal effort aimed at acquiring the necessary requisites for exercising as best we can our tasks and duties with intelligence and insight.

What was that US military recruiting pitch? Be all you can be. A parish minister, or someone who aspires to ministry does well to attend to personal formation. I would see that as developing the skills to serve: listening, counseling, diplomacy–what will serve anyone well regardless of their position in service. It seems Pope Francis is suggesting we attend to the specifics of our craft, be it music, liturgy, pastoral care, social justice, catechesis, spiritual formation, youth ministry …

It does not countenance “recommendations” and payoffs. Sagacity is the readiness to grasp and confront situations with shrewdness and creativity. Idoneity and sagacity also represent our human response to divine grace, when we let ourselves follow the famous dictum: “Do everything as if God did not exist and then put it all in God’s hands as if you did not exist”. It is the approach of the disciple who prays to the Lord every day in the words of the beautiful Universal Prayer attributed to Pope Clement XI: “Vouchsafe to conduct me by your wisdom, to restrain me by your justice, to comfort me by your mercy, to defend me by your power. To thee I desire to consecrate all my thoughts, words, actions and sufferings; that henceforth I may think only of you, speak of you, refer all my actions to your greater glory, and suffer willingly whatever you appoint”.

What do you think of this 18th century prayer? Any applications to family life?

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Laudato Si 233: Sacramental Signs and the Celebration of Rest

Earth from Apollo 8The encyclical letter Laudato Si is available here on the Vatican website. Sections 233-237 treat the topic of “Sacramental Signs and the Celebration of Rest.” As you might guess, I feel an affinity for these passages, and gladness that Pope Francis is reaching into the Church’s common life of prayer to assist in making his argument in favor of environmental sensitivity and connection.

233. The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face.* The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things. Saint Bonaventure teaches us that “contemplation deepens the more we feel the working of God’s grace within our hearts, and the better we learn to encounter God in creatures outside ourselves”.[In II Sent., 23, 2, 3]
* The spiritual writer Ali al-Khawas stresses from his own experience the need not to put too much distance between the creatures of the world and the interior experience of God. As he puts it: “Prejudice should not have us criticize those who seek ecstasy in music or poetry. There is a subtle mystery in each of the movements and sounds of this world. The initiate will capture what is being said when the wind blows, the trees sway, water flows, flies buzz, doors creak, birds sing, or in the sound of strings or flutes, the sighs of the sick, the groans of the afflicted…” (Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch [ed.], Anthologie du soufisme, Paris 1978, 200).

“God in all things.” One can’t get more Ignatian than that.

That quote from Saint Bonaventure is also intriguing. Another commentator once said that one of the outward signs of holiness is how one treats animals, what gentleness and compassion one can muster for those “creatures outside ourselves.” Contrast that with the way animals are mistreated these days, animals abused for sport and for the maximization of food cultivation.

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