Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Sagrada Familia: Favorite Church Comes Alive"

Barcelona Sagrada FamiliaImage by Wolfgang Staudt via Flickr
Here's what some pretty famous and knowledgeable people have said about my favorite church in the whole wide world, the newly consecrated but not yet completed Basilica of La Sagrada Familia (the Holy Family) in Barcelona, Spain . . . .
George Orwell: one of the most hideous buildings in the world. 
Salvador Dali:"superbly creative bad taste."

Disclaimer: I haven't seen every church in the whole wide world, so let's say, my favorite among those I have visited. I also exclude my own parish church which has been and remains a beloved home to all my family.

I first visited the construction site in May of 1964. By then work had been in progress for 88 years. All I saw at that time was the massive shell of what had been the dream and passion of one man, Catalonian architect Antoni Gaudi i Cornet (1852-1926). The young architect (31) received the commission to build this church in 1883, after his predecessor resigned only one year into the project. Gaudí's concept wedded the human and divine. He labored at the task until his untimely death in 1926. The circumstances of his death make a great story in themselves. He was run over by a tram on a Sunday morning while walking home from Mass. For some time, he lay in a coma without anyone knowing  who he was. His remains are buried in the church's crypt.

From the beginning, Sagrada Familia was declared an "expiatory church." I had never heard the term until this week. It means that construction was entirely dependent on private donations and proceeded only when and as long as  money was on hand (no wonder it's taken so long). Gaudí was known to go out on the street and beg for money during his lunch breaks (siestas).

I visited Sagrada Familia again on July 18, 2008. This time I was able to study the magnificent front and rear facades of the church and tour the construction site's interior perimeter. "Thrilled" is too tame a word to describe my feelings. At a time when Americans and Europeans--even believers among us--are reluctant to call any space "sacred," that is exactly what Gaudí envisioned. The nearly finished building fits that definition for me and for most of the millions who flock to Barcelona each year to experience in actuality what the great architect only envisioned.

On November 7, 2010, Pope Benedict XI consecrated the church in the presence of 6,500 people inside the structure and many thousands of Barcelonans and pilgrims who jammed to streets around the exterior of the complex. In his homily Benedict described Gaudí's vision for the church that will be completed in 2026 (the centennial of Gaudí's death. 

"[He] accomplished one of the most important tasks of our times: overcoming the division between human consciousness and Christian consciousness, between living in this temporal world and being open to eternal life, between the beauty of things and God as beauty. Antoni Gaudí did this not with words but with stones, lines, planes, and points. Indeed, beauty is one of mankind’s greatest needs; it is the root from which the branches of our peace and the fruits of our hope come forth." 

For the best views of the magnificent interior, I recommend the full 3-hour video of the consecration ceremony. Even if you don't watch the whole ceremony and Mass (who would besides this old blogger?), you can skip ahead to watch some of the finest and most breathtaking television camera work I've ever seen.

Below are some of my own 2008 photos of not-yet-opened interior and the two (of the eventual three) completed facades: The Birth of Christ and The Passion of Christ.

Above: Main Entrance Facade--The Passion of Christ

Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus
 Nave ceiling: Trees reaching to the stars 
Even today, only some of the the
stained glass windows are in place.
The Nativity (Birth of Christ) Facade

Shepherds Worship the Christ Child

In a future post, I will share more about Antoni Gaudi's life and work.

Images (c) 2008 Aflred J. Garrotto

See also October 1, 2015 Sagrada Familia documentary post.
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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"The Social Network" (Review)

Watching the credits roll at the end of The Social Network, my knee-jerk instinct was to cancel my Facebook account. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue seemed always a step behind Mark Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) mental lightning flashes. The rapid flow of often unintelligible intelligence could not disguise the essential emptiness of the Facebook founder’s moral bank. 

The same might be said of co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and the wimp-jock Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) whose litigation centering around ownership and intellectual property rights dominated the film’s second and third acts, sharing time with round-the-clock drugs-booze-sex-programming marathons. 

Nor could director David Fincher’s slick film-making mitigate the ultimate triumph of Gordon Gekko’s (Wall Street) “Greed is good” gospel, articulated by Justin Timberlake in the role of Napster founder Sean Parker. The Social Network ends up being a cautionary tale about the dark-side hacker philosophy, “I do it because I can, and it’s right because I can do it.”

The fresh air outside the theater, calmed my spleen making room for a second reaction to the film. Why did I join Facebook in the first place and quickly collect over 300 friends? Despite its origins, Facebook as it exists today allows me to stay in touch with family members, obviously, but also with many of the hundred and fifty new Catholics I have ministered to in my local parish. 

With a minimum of words or a quick click on Like, I offer congratulations when babies are born and condolences when a death occurs in the family. I acknowledge birthdays, offer support on difficult days at work or school, pop in for a real-time chat when someone I care about is online. These virtual extensions of ministry require little time, yet let people I rarely encounter face to face know that they are on my mind and in my prayers.

The Social Network reinforced my awareness that life is messy and human motives are never pure. It also reminded me that one person’s greed can enable another’s response to grace.

[Note: This review is not a comment on the actual persons named in the film, The Social Network. It is based solely on their onscreen portrayal.]

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lost Angels

The Wisdom of Les Miserables: Lessons From the Heart of Jean Valjean[NOTE: In the Roman Catholic liturgy today, we honor three biblical angels--Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel. Over the last 40 years, angels have not played a prominent role in the average Catholic's prayer and spiritual life. Into the gap stepped the New Age movement, which seems to have now run its course, or at least tapered off. To honor today's angels, I'd like to share  an excerpt from my book, The Wisdom of Les Miserables: Lessons From the Heart of Jean Valjean.]

To teach Cosette to read, and to watch her playing, was nearly all Jean Valjean’s life.
And then, he would talk about her mother.

Les Miserables, Cosette, Book Fourth, III: Two Misfortunes Mingled Make Happiness

Jean Valjean must have discovered soon after taking Fantine's child into his care that not even his heartfelt attachment to the little girl could love away her loss. Nor could he erase Cosette's earliest memories of rejection and humiliation, suffered at the hands of the Thenardiers.

Being a good father, Jean Valjean spoke often to Cosette of the mother she had never known. This elderly guardian, who knew nothing of modern parenting techniques, followed the counsel of his love for both mother and daughter. Wounded and scarred himself and grieving the woman he loved, he intuited that Cosette, too, suffered from a "primal wound" that festered at the core of their shared abandonment.

Jean Valjean possessed a special antidote with which he revived Cosette’s numbed spirit—the gift of healing stories. He recounted her mother’s eternal love and her dying wish to have her child at her side, as in former, better times. Jean Valjean held back from Cosette the truth that, in her mother’s quest to achieve that reunion, she had sold her golden hair and perfect teeth. And, with nothing left of commercial value, her body, too. In a final act of desperation, Fantine had entrusted her child to M. Madeleine (Valjean), the very man she had once blamed for her loss of employment. Piece by piece and in carefully edited versions of that history, Jean Valjean restored all that was healable in Cosette’s spirit, leaving the rest to the Ultimate Healer of Souls.

Throughout my daughters’ childhoods, I used stories and parables to shed light on the meaning of their lives. Some dealt with actual events in our family life; others combined fact and fiction. All the stories were true in their own way and intended to heal wounds I had not inflicted and could not cure.
One bedtime story in particular drew frequent requests: "Daddy, tell us about our angels!"
"The ones who made a terrible mistake?" I knew exactly which parable they meant.
"Yes, that one."

After getting them settled, I began the familiar story:

"When it was time for you to be born, God gave each of you an angel who had instructions to deliver you directly to Mom and me here in California. But something went wrong. Your angels forgot the directions, or something. Anyway, they got lost. Instead of delivering you to us, they brought one of you to El Salvador, the other to Honduras to other mothers and fathers who gave birth to you and took care of you the best they could. Somehow—don't ask me to explain it—these good people sensed that something wasn't quite right. They had received misplaced children. And so, they began to search for your true parents.

"Meanwhile, back in California, Mom and I were saying to each other: 'What could have happened to those girls?' We waited some more until we decided, 'We'd better go looking for them.' It took a long time, but first we found Monica in El Salvador! Then we found Cristina next door in Honduras. Now at last, we’re all together, just the way God planned it from the beginning."

In answer to our daughters' concern for what might have become of those errant angels, the best I could offer was: "I suppose God assigned them to new jobs that didn't require delivering children to families."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

When Life and Art Come Face to Face

A cropped picture of Mandy Patinkin posing wit...Image via Wikipedia
I'm a stingy person, if not by nature, then by choice. Part of this is due to shyness, but I claim no legitimacy for that excuse. I am embarrassingly like the passersby in Jesus' parable of "The Good Samaritan" (Luke 10). These thoughts were triggered on a recent Saturday night in Berkeley, CA. 

Esther and I were walking along Shattuck Avenue on our way to a Berkeley Repertory production of a new play, Compulsion, starring Mandy Patinkin. I'm a suburban guy--have been all my life. I venture out to cities like San Francisco and Berkeley (my East Bay equivalent) only when I have to, or there's something I really want to see or do there. 

A number of beggars--most of them in their late teens, early twenties--lined the sidewalks. We passed an elderly woman standing alone at a street corner. Esther said, "She seems lost." I kept walking. Mentally, I was calculating. How long will it take to dial 9-1-1 and wait for assistance to arrive? We'd probably be late for the play--or miss it entirely (expensive orchestra tickets down the drain). Maybe she's not lost at all. When I didn't respond, we kept walking.

Based on a true story, Rinne Groff's Compulsion is a moving and highly creative rendition of the Anne Frank story and legacy. Patinkin plays Mr. Sliver, a thinly veiled fictionalization of real-life author Meyer Levin. Silver's personal obsession with Anne (as he imagines her) and his compulsion to get her story out to the world, drive him to the brink of insanity. The Holocaust theme--all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing--was not lost on me. 

One of the Scripture readings of the Catholic liturgy this week was from the Book of Proverbs (3:27): "Do not hold back from those who ask your help, when it is in your power to do so." 

A conscience-stinging play, the image of that seemingly lost woman, the wounded Samaritan, and the practical wisdom of Proverbs--lots of challenging spirits living in my house this week.

(c) 2010 by Alfred J. Garrotto
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Friday, August 27, 2010

The Naked Now, by Richard Rohr

U.S. Catholic online (August 24, 2010) has published my review of Richard Rohr's The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See.

I invite you to learn more about this terrific book on contemporary Catholic Christian spirituality.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Reflection on Anne Rice's Rejection of Christianity

I have great respect for Anne Rice. 

She is an outstanding American author and, since returning to her Catholic roots, has written two volumes of her life of Jesus, Christ the Lord: Out of EgyptChrist the Lord: The Road to Cana and . Her personal apologia at the end the first book (audio version) is truly admirable and inspiring. In July 2010, Ms. Rice announced that she has decided that she will remain faithful to the Risen Jesus (Christ), but that she can no longer be a part of the dysfunctional, ragtag mob of Christians around the world. Her full statement was:

"I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen."

I can certainly add my own ‘Amen’ to each and every one of her “I refuse to”s, except one. Who am I to abandon my “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous” brothers and sisters? While I respect her reasons for retreating to a private, devotional attachment to Christ, her language perplexes me. The best way I can frame this for myself is to pose some key questions:

First, this Jesus whose life and enduring existence are so central to both Anne Rice and me didn’t quit Judaism. Why? Clearly there was a lot about the religion of his birth that he abhorred. Legalism. Discrimination against women and anyone who was, as we say today, “differently-abled” (the blind, the lame, lepers, the poor and marginalized of his society). He railed against a religious system that put power and prestige before people and piled rule upon rule like a heavy yoke on people’s backs. He broke sacrosanct Jewish Sabbath laws when they got in the way of people’s more important need for healing, forgiveness, justice, and something to eat. Worst of all, in the eyes of some of his coreligionists, he partied too much with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other citizens of ill repute. Despite all this, he never considered for a moment being anything other than a Jew.

Jesus was born a Jew, lived his entire life as one, and died in the faith of his parents and ancestors. His earliest followers, who comprised the messianic Jesus Movement within Judaism, remained faithful to the religion of their birth until late in the first century, when it became impossible for the two groups to worship and coexist in the same neighborhood synagogues. Jesus remained a Jew despite all the problems and—in some instances—downright evil that had permeated his religion for centuries. It amazes me that Anne Rice or anyone else (including this blogger) would find it impossible to walk the walk with our brothers and sisters who, with us, represent a messy mix of ideologies and behaviors, saints and sinners.

Second, why didn’t Jesus pick better leaders for his new movement? A close look at his “top 12 draft picks” reveals either very poor character and leadership assessment or some deeper truth that contains an uncomfortable and challenging life lesson. Being the wise rabbi that Anne Rice portrays in her books, Jesus should have been smart enough to recruit the cream of the Judaic crop to carry his message of life and salvation from Palestine to the ends of the earth. 

So, who did this master of human nature and behavior pick? We get a snapshot from the Last Supper. By the way, let’s agree that it’s highly unlikely that only men attended the meal. Too bad we’re stuck with DaVinci’s image of the twelve apostles plus Jesus. In attendance were a traitor (Judas), who had already sold Jesus to his critics; Peter, who hours later would deny any association with a person by the name of Jesus; nine others who would run away at the first sign of danger; and one, John, who had the guts the next day to stand tall with the courageous women at the foot of the cross. 

Al Davis, owner of the NFL’s underachieving Oakland Raiders, could have drafted better than that. Did Jesus suspect that what came to be known as Christianity would in fact become a “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group”? Of course he did. 

So, my choices are 
(1) to quit Christianity in favor of my own personal church-of-Jesus-and-me, or 
(2) to dig for a deeper truth hidden within the fickleness of human nature and God’s enduring patience and desire for reconciliation. 

One of my favorite stories is the one about two friends who were discussing religion. One said, “I’m not going to join a church until I find one that’s perfect.” The other considered the friend’s statement and said, “Okay, but there’s just one catch. As soon as you join it, it won’t be perfect anymore.”

My reading of the four gospels—and Anne Rice’s two volumes—is that Jesus made a choice to live and work and pray alongside very imperfect people within his own family, his local synagogue, and at the Temple in Jerusalem. It would never have occurred to him to abandon his community because of malice, corruption, pettiness, and injustice. These conditions were a given. He called those who would listen to him to a higher standard—even to a degree of perfection. What is even more telling for the purpose of this reflection, he made a commitment to walk that crooked journey with, not apart from them.

What all this tells me is that Jesus rejected the option of saying, “Listen up, you wretched sinners, if you ever get your (#@!*) together, you can come and look for me.”

Copyright (c) 2010 by Alfred J Garrotto 

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Battling Writer's Guilt

It’s five years since my last novel, Down a Narrow Alley.* I had begun to think that I had no more book-length stories left in me. To my surprise, I woke up one late July morning with what seems like a viable novel project, complete with interesting characters,  at least a rudimentary plot line/narrative arc (always my nemesis). 

Since I've been sitting on a half-written novel and a bunch of other “concepts,” I promised myself that I would not begin to write until I had a compass, in the form of a nearly complete outline (beginning, middle, and end). 

Typically, the brainstorms that fly from my imagination have a short lifespan. This new one, whose working title is A Train to Bruges, feels different. It breathes pure oxygen and includes subplots/obstacles/solutions/twists that show promise of getting me beyond Chapter 5. The first 5,000 words flooded into an MS Word document. "Hey, world, A. J. Garrotto's got his groove back!" Then, I got sucker-punched. Never saw it coming. My attacker's name was Guilt (capitalized and italicized). 

"Do you know how long it'll to take you to finish this thing?" 

I recognized the strident, mocking voice. It has hounded me through every attempt to write a good novel, if not the Great American Novel. "Yeah," I said, already rocked back on my heels, "about a year."

"How can you justify a commitment like that when you already have a close-to-full-time job . . . and a family?" Not having a ready answer left me open to another jab. "And, even if you finish your sorry-ass novel, who's going to read it besides your relatives and most loyal friends? Oh, and by the way, have you checked the sales of your last three novels lately? Just how many millions down are they on Amazon's sales chart?"

I'm chagrined at how easily I succumb to this kind of writer-abuse, but there is a positive side. In the euphoria of inspiration and renewed dedication, I hadn't stopped to ask myself why I want to write this novel. This question is the step-child of the greater question, why do I write at all. Granting the validity of some of the negatives in my adversary’s mockery, are there any good reasons to write what might turn out to be another “dead-end” novel? 

Yes! And let me point them out.

1. The search for meaning is the great work of my life. Writing a novel helps me to explore parts of my inner Self that I neglect in other aspects of my daily existence. Through my characters, I learn things about myself. Is it selfish to write for one's own benefit and growth? In a way, but I’d rather think of writing as a unique way for the divine to reach into my heart and put a few more pieces of the puzzle of my life in place.

2. I write to leave a personal legacy to my daughters and grandchildren. Maybe they’ll learn things about me that I have not disclosed in face to face revelation and understand how I got to be who I am.

3. Recently, while journaling, I had an insight about myself. I wrote, “I am a storyteller. That’s who I am.” Everything I do in life is related to story, whether it's journaling in private or writing fiction and nonfiction for publication. In my professional life as lay minister in my local parish, I listen to human stories and share my own jagged story--connecting all of it to the Great Story that God is telling in the history of planet Earth and the expanding universe. 

4.  Making up stories is fun!
Now that I’m warmed up, I could add to that list, but I don’t need to. I already have enough reasons to add chapters to this new work, mining its personal treasures and deferring judgments about its ultimate literary value and its future in the publishing universe. Let it end up two millionth on Amazon. The writing is the thing. And for this storyteller, that’s enough.

* Down a Narrow Alley is the sequel to Circles of Stone (2002, Hilliard and Harris Publishers)

(c) 2010 by Alfred J. Garrotto

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Special Place in Heaven

God must give a lot of leeway to writers, poets, actors, singers, musicians, painters, and sculptors (apologies to any of you I missed). Those of us who live the artist's life--at all points along the scale of talent, proficiency, maturity, sobriety, and even sanity--push creativity as far as our gifts and desire will take us. In the process, we risk crossing the boundaries of traditional social and religious standards, in our work and in our lives.

In recent blogs I have attempted to describe the indescribable "divine" in the artist's vocation and his or her surrender to the missionary challenge: "The great gift of artists is that they do not hoard their transcendent experience." 

The mission statement of my home parish, Christ the King, in Pleasant Hill, CA, is "To Hear the Gospel and Make a Difference." Applying this challenge to artists, I need only flip the understanding of "gospel" to include the inner movement of the Divine Spirit within artistically gifted ones to combine inspiration and desire with physical and mental capacity. When that synergy occurs, great works spring forth and meld with equally inspired performance--and we make a positive difference in the world.

Adolfo Hohenstein: poster for Madama Butterfly...Image via Wikipedia
What got me thinking along these lines, again? Esther and I recently attended a Festival Opera performance of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Inspired by David Bellasco's late-19th c. play, the composer gifted the world with some of the most lush and soul-stirring music ever written. 

Oddly, the tragic story line seems to have taken on greater moral significance in modern times. A dashing American naval officer . . . a lovestruck 15-year-old geisha. In 1900, when Puccini attended the play, who in the audience would have fully appreciated the nature of Pinkerton's abuse of a fragile young Japanese woman. How many would have expected a white man far from home to do anything other than opt for a convenient  hit-and-run marriage contract (999 years . . . with a monthly renewal option!)? I suppose it's to our credit that in 2010 we sit in darkness, awash in heart-ripping sound, and feel for  the plight of Cio-Cio San and harbor no sympathy for Pinkerton's too-late and insincere repentance.

In grand opera, music and message require skilled performance. When delivery breaks down both suffer. At the performance we attended, soprano Teresa Eickel (Cio Cio San) and tenor Christopher Bengochea (Pinkerton) were up to Puccini's challenge. Supported by an excellent cast, orchestra, and production design, they affirmed my conviction that a special place awaits artists in the afterlife, no matter how far they may stray from what most of us call the "straight and narrow" in their personal lives.
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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Mystery of "Hits" has served me well as a convenient repository for my novels, articles, blog posts (from this page), and poems. The site also serves as a pretty effective marketing outreach to a monthly audience of 1.4 million visitors. 

Of all the items I've archived on AuthorsDen, I've listed those that have received the most hits on my page. Why these lead the pack, I can't begin to explain. I personally would have chosen others. Here goes:

Poem: "A Wedding Toast" (10,980 hits and counting)

May the sun give light and warmth to the days ahead of you;
May the moon soften your nights with never-waning romance;
May you be each other's North Star and compass through life;
And may our God walk with you to make you strong, loving and wise.

Novel: Finding Isabella (8,400 hits and counting)

Article: "Welcome to the Family: A Parent Talks to Children About Lent" (6,513 hits and counting)

Like every writer, I do some one thing every day to get my work "out there" to the public. My lack of fame, or even name recognition, means that I have a long way to go in learning how the write the "Great American (__whatever__)" and find an audience for it, beyond the people who already love me.

(c) 2010 by Alfred J. Garrotto
All rights reserved

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Monday, June 28, 2010

The Hero Construction Company

Those of you who have read my two posts about the Bosnian cellist, Vedran Smailovic,  will enjoy a blog site I stumbled  upon--or was led to--today. Featured in a March 3, 2009, post at Matt Langdon's "The Hero Construction Company" site is the children's book, Echoes From the Square, by Elizabeth Wellburn. In an accompanying video, Ms. Wellburn reads the full text of the book, which Deryk Houston beautifully illustrated. There's a blurb by the great Yo-Yo Ma, and the musical accompaniment is quite lovely, too.

(c) 2010 by Alfred J. Garrotto
All rights reserved

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Saint With the Dragon Tattoo

I've always marveled that some children reared in wretchedly dysfunctional families grow up to be marvelous, well-adjusted human beings. Others born into loving homes and Western-style comfort and privilege choose an opposite path, living their lives in seemingly self-inflicted misery. Those who have scratched their way to maturity--even happiness--against the odds now have a new model and patron saint in Lisbeth Salander, the female protagonist of the late Stieg Larsson's internationally best-selling Swedish trilogy: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

Purists will argue that a literary (and now film) character cannot  qualify as a saint. There was a time when I, too, delimited my understanding of the spiritual world along the boundary lines of fact and fiction. A crack appeared in my dualistic (either/or) thought processes in 1969, when the Catholic Church admitted that only shaky evidence existed to support the historicity of some saints who had long enjoyed their special annual feast days. Among those demoted was everybody's favorite co-pilot, St. Christopher.

Archbishop Jacopo de Voragine, author of The Golden Legend, a thirteenth century compilation of saints' lives, set off a seven-hundred-year run of popular devotion to the muscular Christ-bearer. Over the past three decades, the saint's medals and dashboard bobble heads have virtually disappeared. What became of those billions of prayers sent heavenward by travelers who relied on him for protection? Jesus assures us, as he did the people of his own day, that our God wastes nothing: "Your faith has saved you" (Luke 7:50).

Humans, whether religious or not, have always drawn inspiration from legends, as well as from certifiably historical people and events. So, why not adopt Larsson's protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, as a saint for our time, especially as a model for young adults? 

I won't give away the details of her life story here. There just might still be a few people on the planet who have not read the books (or not yet completed the trilogy). Personal discovery of her inner life, values, and unique, but finely tuned, morality is one of the trilogy's great rewards. But I give nothing away by saying that the Universe dealt Salander one of the worst hands of any child, fictional or real.

Canonizing Salander does challenge us to shift our understanding about what is moral and what is not. By rigid Judeo-Christian standards, the behaviors that enable her to survive as a functioning human being are immoral. But behavior alone is not the ultimate determiner of morality. For me, the most sensible and hallowed definition of morality is enshrined at the core of my own tradition. For Catholics, individual conscience is the final arbiter of morality, superseding everything else. The essence of morality is being human in the best sense, according to each person's unique capability at any given moment in life. Since we are made in God's image, whatever attitudes and behaviors help us to grow emotionally and spiritually--and thus become more like God--are moral. An intentional decision or action is immoral to the extent that it causes us to be less than the person God created us to be.

In The Girl Who Played With Fire, co-protagonist Mikael Blomkvist says of his friend Lisbeth, now a murder suspect, that she possesses a highly developed sense of morality. By this he means that her moral compass is a trustworthy guide and that she consistently operates from that core principle. In view of that, by what right does anyone judge her or condemn her choices? This is especially so, in light of the abuse she has suffered as a child and teen from the very adults responsible for guiding and protecting her (mother, father, legal and social welfare systems, and government at the highest levels). That she survives and arrives at womanhood as a still-moral human being is miracle enough to merit this fictional character the titles of role model and patron saint for the twenty-first-century. 

(c) 2010 by Alfred J. Garrotto
All rights reserved

Author's Website

Alfred J. Garrotto is the author of the suspense novel,

Thursday, June 3, 2010

My Cello Year

What's not to love about the cello? Sexy design. Polished finish that brings every wooden fiber to brilliant life. A to-die-for "voice." 

Twice in recent months, this instrument has caught me by surprise and thrust itself upon my consciousness. First, in the PBS documentary, "Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound," that chronicles Baez's life, including her 1993 visit to the destroyed and terrorized city of Sarajevo, Bosnia. In a December 26, 2009 blog entry, I described her moving encounter with Sarajevo Opera cellist Vedran Smajlovic

"Unable to stop the madness that had ripped apart the former Yugoslavia, Smajlovic honored the memory of his friends and defied their killers by doing the only thing he was good at. Placing his chair in the middle of the street, he took out cello and bow—musician and instrument melding into a single defiant force. Eyes closed to the surrounding destruction, he rendered the mournful Adagio in G minor by Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni."

That experience sent me to Google and beyond to learn more about Smajlovic, the man. I found and read Steven Galloway's best-selling novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo. According to an article in Wikipedia, "Although he only appears as a peripheral character in the novel, Smajlović has publicly expressed his outrage over the publication of the book, demanding financial compensation from the author. " Copyright attorneys I looked up have been quoted as saying that he has little chance of winning that legal battle.

More recently, my wife and I squeezed into our busy spring lives a 29th wedding anniversary date that started with Sunday Mass at our local parish, Christ the King, in Pleasant Hill (CA). Then we enjoyed a terrific seafood brunch at Scott's Restaurant in Walnut Creek, followed by a rare matinee visit to the Diablo Symphony at the Lesher Center for the Performing Arts (thank you, Goldstar).

The first half of the program was pleasant but uninspiring. The post-intermission program promised a guest appearance by a cellist, whose name meant nothing to me, but I do love the instrument. David Requiro, a tall, slender twenty-something, came on stage wearing dark slacks and a loose-fitting white shirt. He carried his instrument and bow. From the first note, I knew I was in the presence of a unique artist. What captivated me, beyond his exquisite rendition of Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor, was the mirage he created, making himself and his cello disappear as separate entities and reappear as a single, inseparable unit. 

This is an artist's supreme achievement, be it a musician, actor, painter, or writer: to become one with the work. I think of Michelangelo on the scaffolds of the Sistine Chapel, Antoni Gaudi living the last years of his life in the construction site of Barcelona's (still-unfinished) Sagrada Familia. I think of Victor Hugo becoming one with his idealized man, Jean Valjean, and Stieg Larsson losing himself in the personae of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander in the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.

The great gift of artists is that they do not hoard their transcendent experience, but allow us less-skilled humans an opportunity to be transported in spirit to a higher realm of contemplative unity, be it ever so brief. That's a lofty and sacred calling.

(c) 2010 by Alfred J. Garrotto
All rights reserved

Alfred J. Garrotto is the author of the suspense novel,

Monday, April 12, 2010

In a Child's Eyes

What's heaven like? The closest I've come to it was in the eyes of a 3 year old with a passion for choo-choo trains. Little trains, like miniature Thomas; big ones, like the old retiree (shown here) resting trackside at the Martinez (CA) Amtrak Station.

At my grandson's command, I hoisted him onto my lap and displayed his favorite snapshot on my wide-screen monitor.

"Can that choo-choo go on the tracks?" I asked.

"No!" He delivered his line with the enthusiasm of a child actor in a Cheerios commercial.

"And why not?"

"Too old, too tired." Together we exhaled a compassionate sigh for this once-proud locomotive that now can only watch and reminisce, as younger models race by. 

Recently, we lucky grandparents had our little guy to ourselves for two whole days. What better way to spend this time than by treating him to his first ride on a real train and a visit to the Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento? On the day before our adventure, he and I went to the station to buy our tickets. 

"Why do we need a ticket?" I asked.

No script for this dialogue, but several prompts later he got it. "No ticket, no choo-choo ride." 

In our short time at the station, an eastbound Capitol Corridor train roared in, whistles blasting, guard gates clanging as they fell. When it stopped, the engineer leaned out of the cab and waved. At first, my grandson couldn't believe the gesture was directed at him. How could such an important man--one with power to tame this mammoth beast--be waving at me? Slowly, his little arm rose and waved back.

The next morning, a silver giant's doors slid open to receive a wide-eyed little boy and two excited grandparents. For the next hour, our little traveler pressed his nose to the window, in awe of every sight that we considered ordinary--the Martinez-Benicia Bridge and the brown Carquinez Straits current lapping at its pylons, empty Solano County fields, and a ho-hum stretch of the Sacramento Valley. 

I envied my grandson's vision of the wonders to which I had become blind. I felt moved by the depth of his contemplation of the miracles of nature and human invention.  I resolved then and there to view  the world that day--and after--through his eyes.

(c) 2010 by Alfred J. Garrotto
All rights reserved


Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Prayer for Renewal of the Roman Catholic Church

Lord Jesus, I lift my saddened spirit to you in humility and faith—also in great hope and trust that your Spirit is guiding my beloved Roman Catholic Church. I believe this, even as the fires of the sex abuse scandal lick around the feet of Pope Benedict XVI.

Lord, bring the triumphalism of our pope and hierarchy to its knees. Let the secrecy and protectionism that shroud your Good News and saving mission in the world end. Give light to our Holiness, Eminences, and Excellencies who have lost their way. Turn their inevitable humiliation into a grace that will purify our defective Church and heal it of its sins. May your gospel no longer be muddied by holy, but empty, words that coddle scandalous behavior in preference to virtue and fidelity. For only by acknowledging their current blindness can our leaders return to their apostolic roots and restore the Body of Christ to full health and vigor.

Lord, inspire our Holy Father to take responsibility for the current rebuke and ridicule that has fallen on our heads. Let him declare a period of “Universal Repentance,” as the King of Nineveh did, when the humbled prophet Jonah called for confession and reparation. And from the sackcloth of this top-down admission of guilt, raise up a newly baptized and cleansed Church to bask in the glory of your divine Light.

Finally, let the renewal for which I pray begin in me. I make this earnest prayer with confidence in the guiding presence of your most Holy Spirit. Amen.