Wednesday, November 21, 2018

how does the war start

- Henry, we've mangled everything we've touched.
- Deny us what we will, we have done that.

The Lion in Winter (1968)

In an award-winning tension-filled family Christmas reunion that no snarky thinkpiece could prepare one for, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II spend most scenes lighting fireworks under each other's skirts and tallying points scored. Their three sons and Henry's former ward now mistress Alice are no better. Everyone's got an angle, to borrow a line from another famous Christmas classic, and these angles are rather sharp and are designed to impale someone eventually.

When someone's conniving crosses the lines of affection and becomes treason against both Henry's heart and crown, Henry reaches a breaking point. After boring through each other's armor for three-quarters of the film, we have finally reached Henry's and Eleanor's hearts.

Henry accuses Eleanor of coming between him and his eldest son, Richard, he roars that he was ousted from her bed and her heart by her doting on their son. Eleanor responds: "only after you replaced me with Rosamund," Henry's first mistress.

It's not that simple; I won't let it be that simple, spits back Henry.

It's a glorious roller-coaster of a movie. Every player in this royal family is armed to the hilt: with words, with political savvy in spades, with claws so sharpened they seem nearly literal. It's a wild west in twelfth-century England. It's thrilling to watch, but distressing, as both Eleanor and Henry recognize that whatever it is they're doing, it's not what they set out to do. Henry mourns his life, when written down, will be better read than lived. Eleanor is taunted constantly for being heartless and deceptive to the core, but, despite Henry's protestations, it appears that it really is that simple.

That at the center of all her political machinations is her broken heart from losing Henry—ostensibly.

James Goldman's script weaves together relational conflict with political comment so deftly and dizzyingly, we are unsure of what the movie sees as the stony heart of this intractable family drama that trades around in its squabbling some of the richest provinces of Europe. What is at utter bottom of these characters' desires: is it power or is it love? Can they even tell the difference?

I was thinking of this when reading JD Flynn's Twitter thread, covering many statements of the recent USCCB conference, including this one, featuring a quote from Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando:

"Life in the Church is moving on. If you're not reading the blogs and you're not watching tv, this is not front and center for most of our ppl." Says he does not mean by that to dismiss the real pain of victims. Says bps have to continue to be good bps to regain trust.

It reminds me of Eleanor's attitude, borne out, perhaps from many Christmases of a similar ilk, that this will go on perpetually, that there is no danger of what they have built breaking. That they are allowed to roar and snarl, entangled in each other's lives forever.
"What family doesn't have its ups and downs?" she quips.

Her final departure from Henry: "you'll let me out for Easter?" as she heads back again to her palace prison, unable to win her freedom this year, is supposed to, I think, be a sort of "happy ending."

This seems to be a declaration, in some way, of trust, of love. Of recognizing that the project that we are embarked upon is one that holds us to it, above and beyond our own inability to transcend our limited human abilities.

Oh isn't that nice, we seem to be prompted to think. Henry's still sleeping with this other woman and Eleanor still hasn't won her freedom, and no one has died or gotten anything that they actually want. Always good to see a status quo of misery really dig its heels in.

But really, this is remarkably troubling. It seems less like stability and more like delusion. True stability is difficult to come by, so most humans opt for delusion. It's cheaper and more readily available.

Yes, of course, there is some human failing that we will always have with us and the projects we undertake and structures that we build must suffer them, account for them, even embrace them, but there has to be a place where one draws the line. It is not acceptable that the potential collateral damage of being in the presence of a priest is that you will be severely physically, emotionally, or psychologically damaged. It is not acceptable that the potential outcome of a visit to the bishop is disregard for a priest's crime or that any person in a position of power has the ability to abuse the men in his care. It is not acceptable, because these are not simply ornamental damages. These are flaws that are fundamentally in opposition to what the institution is trying to be, what the project is trying to achieve that their presence undercuts the project in the first place.

It is no good saying we want to be a Church that saves souls and brings God's grace to the work and this is a task that stands above and beyond its fragile human members when those fragile human members who are responsible for this project abuse souls and obstruct grace. How seriously do you take this project, if your behavior is so diametrically opposed to its goals and there is such flagrant apathy towards preventing that behavior in the future? These are not small foibles, these are serious flaws that cry out for new structures to prevent them from occurring regularly. Since they apparently are able to flourish like weeds in sidewalk cracks, it's time to build a new sidewalk, maybe not with cement which is, as is common knowledge, prone to cracking. This is the sort of rebuilding that is called for. As Bishop Wenski adds, outrage is a popular stance, an industry feeds it and exploits the just anger that ought to lead to some new outcome.

Moving on from anger, relaxing one's grip on whatever stick is available to shake is, sure, good. And it is a blessed natural occurrence. Being a limited human creature means, mercifully, that moods subside, thank God.

But it is no virtue that life in the Church is "moving on," as Bishop Wenski says. There does not seem to be contained in this "moving on" any sort of positive moral attribute. For "moving on" is not a healthy reaction to a problem unless the problem has been solved. Even our sacramental reconciliation commands us to add the coda of a firm purpose to sin no more. We are forgiven, but what good is that if we go right back to our vomit? Our moods subside, thank God, but then our reason has to pick up where our emotions left us and carry the baton, even though our moods and emotions are distracted by a thousand other shiny objects:

Christmas is coming to an end, we are fed up of being stuck in the castle. We really do love each other, so let's just put up and shut up—and, look there's another crusade that we could fight or some other shiny bauble to be chasing—and pretend this never happened. You go back to your place, I go back to mine. In three hundred sixty days, our unrepented prides will land us right back in the ring together, and we'll continue this like Sisyphus for as long as we are standing. It's exhausting, but that's life!

But we are not animals, and habit is as strong a force of nature as any, but we have minds and also hearts that allow us to break toxic status quos.

There is a world, there must be, in which grace can occur—and grace always leads to transformation, teaching even the oldest dogs new tricks. There is a world in which growth, not moving on, can actually occur. There is a world in which Eleanor can get her freedom, in which even churches can convert themselves, and in which even the most weaponized of wills can disarm themselves. In a world where carpenters get resurrected, as says Eleanor, anything is possible.

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