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Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
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Media Watch: New book celebrates God’s gift of creation; ‘Signs’ not for the faint
by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register
(From the Aug. 22, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)
A year ago this August I had the opportunity of attending a workshop with 30 or so Catholics
from various parts of the world. Two of the speakers were Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser and
Servite Sister Joyce Rupp. I liked both of them, although Sister Joyce forced me to stretch
further because of her style and emphasis on the right brain side. She even had me dancing in
the round dances that were part of her leading morning prayer. I assure you: that effort was a
real stretch for me.
Sister Joyce’s new book, The Cosmic Dance — An Invitation to Experience Our Oneness
(Orbis Books; Maryknoll, New York; 2002; $25) is a retreat-like experience that is meant to be
prayed with and read slowly.
Over a period of three weeks I read a few pages of The Cosmic Dance each day and
attempted to pray with it. In the tradition of De Chardin and De Mello it deeply affected me.
Her words opened me up to a renewed sense of nature and our connections to nature. The
beautiful illustrations by Sister Mary Southard, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of La
Grange, Ill., were helpful. However, the beauty of the book is that it helps you see many
realities of being a creature on this earth, realities that are so easily are missed during the
non-stop movement of our lives.
Sister Joyce has taken the writings of Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, Annie
Dillard, Anthony De Mello and many others. She has reflected on them and added her own
easy-going style of poetry and prose to draw the reader into her cosmic view of nature and
life. It is a journey well worth taking.
Two of her great themes are awareness and connection to all of God’s creatures. One day
I was walking out through my back yard. I noticed a small bird had died. Its head had been
caught in one of the openings of the back of a plastic chair. I got a plastic bag and picked up
the bird to dispose of the remains and noticed lots of small worms left on the chair. After the
walk of a half hour or so I noticed the worms I had left of the chair were all gone. I saw the
cycle of life before me in my own back yard.
In her section on hope, she tells the story of Roger and Mary Williams, who were
religious leaders and founders of Rhode Island. They were buried side-by-side in a grave near
an apple tree. Years later the local residents wanted to exhume the bodies and bury them with
honor. When they opened the graves they found that the bodies were completely decayed, even the
bones. The roots of the apple tree had fed on the phosphorus of the decaying bones and changed
the human substance into food for the tree. As the author puts it: “Even in death, life goes on
to nurture the future. Hope prevails.”
The Cosmic Dance brought me back to the importance of the views of de Chardin as a
vision for our lives. The personal stories from Joyce’s life strike home as she carries on the
traditions of storytelling that were so much a part of de Mello’s spirituality.
If you want a book that touches the tragedy and joy of life in an all-encompassing
manner, The Cosmic Dance is for you. It is a book to be slowly savored and reflected
upon. And to top it off, it helps prayer rise to a loving God who created such a great gift in
the many aspects of creation that connect together in the cosmic dance.
This summer has been the season of very good movies about the relationship of father
and son. We started out with Tom Cruise in Minority Report and then added Tom Hanks in
Road to Perdition. Now this week we have added the relationship to a daughter also, in
Mel Gibson’s Signs.
Signs, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, is a terrific movie. It has some
of the best acting of the summer. It has a mood of foreboding and terror throughout that makes
the theater so quiet that someone eating popcorn is quite a distraction. But the ending seemed
too simplistic and pat to me. Nevertheless, Signs is a thought-provoking and striking movie for
older teens and adults.
Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a former Episcopalian priest who left the priesthood six months ago after the tragic death of his beloved wife in a traffic accident. He has taken up a new life as a corn farmer on acreage near the village where he was a pastor. The locale is lush Bucks County, 45 miles from Philadelphia.
Hess has two wonderful children living with him on the farm. His son is Morgan (Rory
Culkin) and his daughter is Bo (Abigail Breslin). Hess’ younger brother, Merrill (Joaquin
Phoenix), has moved in to help out on the farm after an up-and-down career in minor league
The movie starts with intensity as Graham wakes from a late morning sleep and rushes
with his brother from a house nearby to find the children walking around large, perfectly cut
formations in the corn fields.
The early previews of Signs said that among the places this was happening
included Tri-Cities, Wash.
Who has made these giant formations that can best be seen from the sky? The movie
attempts to tell from a very definite space in Pennsylvania what might be the cause of these
Signs is a film where telling any more about the story has the real possibility of
telling too much and wrecking the film for viewers who have not yet seen it.
Mel Gibson is as good an actor in Signs as he has ever been in his film career.
Joaquin Phoenix, as the 27-year-old brother, is intense, sincere and a strong screen presence.
The two children, Abigail Breslin and Rory Culkin, are the best young actors of the year. Each
in his or her own way plays a unique character that steals your heart.
Among the smaller parts, Cherry Jones is a stand-out as as Officer Paski. Her Broadway
experience as a great actress works in film as well. She is outstanding. In the tradition of
Alfred Hitchcock, the director, M. Night Shyamalan, plays a small role that is mysterious at
first but becomes clear as the movie progresses.
Shyamalan is definitely in charge of Signs. In terms of pace, Signs is
the exact opposite of a fast-cutting film like Moulin Rouge. For some it may seem slow
moving. But if you let yourself go with the story you will be on the edge of your seat through
Signs is about more than strange cuttings in the corn fields. It is about the signs
of our lives and how we look at the world around us. It is particularly in the tradition of the
Big Three movies of this summer about what it means to be a father to children. I think it is
good that the popular culture is asking important questions about who and what a father of
children is. Signs is a thoroughly entertaining movie that deals with core issues of our
lives. Even with a simplistic ending Signs is a memorable movie. If you can take the
frightening moments, don’t miss Signs.
Signs is rated PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned). There are many spooky and
intense moments throughout the film. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film
and Broadcasting rates Signs A-II — adults and adolescents.
(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and ecumenical relations
officer for the Diocese of Spokane. His reviews also appear in the Cheney Free Press.)
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