Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302


Media Watch
Walla Walla parishioner publishes ‘Stepping Stones,’ ‘a thoughtful and prayerful book’

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the June 21, 2012 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Reviews

Libby Swenson of Assumption Parish in Walla Walla has written a thoughtful and prayerful book with around 70 short one-page reflections. It is called Stepping Stones: Ordinary Moments Creating a Path to Prayer. The book is printed by Color Press of Walla Walla for a list price of $12.95. Its ISBN number is 9781-4675-0627-451295.

Libby writes from the perspective of 63 years of marriage to her husband Ferdy and a family of children and grandchildren. Her reflections are on the normal things of life and how we can see with new eyes what is all around us and give thanks to a gracious God. She uses Scriptural quotations as part of her meditations. But it is her stories from her daily life that touch the heart and soul of the reader.

The cover of the book by her granddaughter, Elizabeth Swenson, is a prize winner.

*****

Anthony Shadid, the Pulitzer-winning foreign correspondent formerly for the Washington Post and most recently The New York Times, has written a new non-fiction book of rebuilding his ancestral home in Marjayoun, Lebanon. While reporting in Syria, Shadid died of an apparent asthma attack in February of this year just about the time his book was being published.

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt of Boston for a list price of $26.

House of Stone tells two stories. One is of Shadid’s maternal grandparents and their relatives that goes back 100 years. It tells the story of his extended family’s life in what was then Ottoman Empire. Many of them emigrated to the United States, where they settled in Oklahoma.

The second story that runs coterminous with the first is the year or so that Shadid went back to his home town to rebuild the old stone home that goes back to his great-grandfather Isber Samara. This part of the story takes place over the year of 2008.

The rebuilding is a Middle Eastern version of the book and movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. It is the story of how much can go wrong when one is constructing a dream house with special emphasis on how slowly it takes to get anything done. Anyone who has worked on construction may well enjoy this section.

For me personally it was rough going. The workman, with all their assurances of being on time and getting the project done and, in the end, not being there, was grating to me.

Near the end of the story, Shadid describes his purpose in writing this book: “But all in all, I had turned an abandoned house, disabled by war, into a place that exuded a kind of peace. Rather than just a channel to the past, or a facsimile of it, it had become new, part of what was and what would and could be. Isber’s home, born of ambition, had been burnished by the sacrifice of two parents who chose safety for their children at the cost of their own loss. It was a place where my family could take what they needed from the past as I had, seeing in its stories the comfort I sought and the promise I found. Sometimes it is better to imagine the past than to remember it.”

The many names of people, the Arabic terms, and the construction frustration make House of Stone a slow and tough read. A few pictures would have helped to understand the building of the old home more clear. There is no index.

But in the end, the sad part is that Anthony Shadid and his family never got to really enjoy their historic rebuilt home.

*****

The last book I read by Franciscan Father Richard Rohr, a year or so ago, did not connect well with me. But recently several people have recommended his new book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, published in hardcover by Jossey-Bass of San Francisco for a list price of $19.95. And this time Father Rohr really spoke to me.

I would guess that Falling Upward is best suited for someone who in whatever way came through the Vatican II experience and is open to the outside influences that are part and parcel of Father Rohr’s writing. Falling Upward is connected, among other sources, to Father Rohr’s Catholic Franciscan tradition and to the writings of Carl Jung and Julian of Norwich. He also brings his 40 years of pastoral ministry especially the last 13 years of working with those in prison. Plus there is some Robert Bly, Joseph Campbell, and Victor Frankl.

The author has no fear in taking the difficult passages in the Gospel teaching of Jesus and challenging the reader to see how they are not impossible for human beings. For example, we hear: “Yet Jesus predicted it himself: ‘The children of this world are often more clever than the children of light’ (Luke 16:8), which is probably why he made the sinner, the outsider, the Gentile, the Samaritan, the woman, the Roman centurion, the poor person and the leper the heroes and heroines of his stories.”

From Jung comes the view that there are two major parts to our lives. The first part of life is to live as fully as possible as we build a strong identity. The second part of life is more quiet and reflective, more inner directed. This is second-half-of-life wisdom, or what St. Paul calls “the discerning of spirits” (I Corinthians 12:10). In life we meet failure, sin, pain and sickness, all of which can knock us down. The basic contention of the book is that in that pain and breakdown we can “fall upward” – come closer to the living God.

I would guess there is a danger in the book of stereotyping some groups. For example, I think Father Rohr could have used some examples of the failures of priests of his own generation (which is also mine), along with a critique of how he sees seminarians or younger priests of our time. The danger of generalized statements is throwing everyone into the same barrel when there are always exceptions.

Near the end of the book, before a meditation on a poem by Thomas Merton, Father Rohr writes: “Your second journey is all yours to walk or to avoid. My conviction is that some falling apart of the first journey is necessary for this to happen, so do not waste a moment of time lamenting poor parenting, lost job, failed relationship, physical handicap, gender identity, economic poverty or even the tragedy of any kind of abuse. Pain is part of the deal. If you don’t walk into the second half of your own life, it is you who do not want it. God will always give you exactly what you truly want and desire. So make sure you desire, desire deeply, desire yourself, desire God, desire everything good, true and beautiful. All the emptying out is only for the sake of a Great Outpouring. God, like nature, abhors all vacuums and rushes to fill them.”

Father Rohr doesn’t soften his words or take away the challenge. Falling Upward is a book I hope to come back to time and time again.

Movie Reviews

In early May I was down to Portland for an annual reunion of my seminary class. One afternoon we attended the Living Room Theaters near Powell’s Book Store. The theaters are a new concept of reserved seats when you buy a ticket. Each of the six theaters is around 36 seats. There is a bar and restaurant attached to the theaters and you may eat an ordered meal during the film. According to an usher the concept works and the theaters are doing well financially.

The film we saw was the 2011 Italian film We Have a Pope by noted director Nana Moretti. Mr. Moretti was the head of the competition jury at the just completed Cannes Film Festival in May this year that gave the highest award to the film Amour by the Austrian director Michael Haneke. Previously Mr. Moretti had profoundly disliked one of the key films of the winner.

The original title for the film was the Latin phrase Habemus Papem, proclaimed as the pope comes out before the people in the Square after his election. The film is both a serious drama and comedy with lots of humor.

The cardinals in conclave are having a difficult time coming up with a new pope. Finally Cardinal Melville, who no one thought in the running, is elected, and he very slowly says “Yes.” Melville is played by the great 86-year old French actor Michel Piccoli. Just as the new pope is to go out on the balcony of St. Peter’s he has a major “panic attack” and will not appear before the crowds. Vatican public relations officials say he needs time for prayer and reflection.

Meanwhile, the cardinals call in a psychiatrist who is agnostic and is played by the director himself. The result is quite humorous as all the cardinals watch the doctor try to find out what has happened to the new pope.

The pope is then sent to the psychiatrist’s former wife, who is also a doctor of mental health. He then escapes into the city. He even gets involved with a drama troupe who perform Chekhov. The new pope seems to identify with melancholic longing of Chekhov’s The Seagull which he is able to watch being performed while he is on the loose.

Meanwhile, the original psychiatrist organizes volleyball teams made up of the cardinals who are still unable to come out in public until the new pope appears on the balcony. This part of the film is good natured but seems to dilute the main theme of the new pope seeking some sense of peace in the midst of what he has said “yes” to.

Personally I enjoyed We Have a Pope very much. There are times to laugh out loud and there are times to identify with the sadness of an old man who is overwhelmed by what is being asked of him.

The Motion Picture Association of America has no rating for the film. The Catholic News Service classification is L – limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. It is in Italian with easy-to-read subtitles.

*****

I saw John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel at a theater in Seattle the first weekend it opened there and the theater was fairly full in the afternoon with seniors like myself. And everyone seemed to be enjoying the film as the laughter was infectious. Later someone told me she tried to see the film on Memorial Day weekend in the afternoon here in Spokane and the film was sold out.

It is clear that the seven retired British pensioners seeking a new beginning at a so-called refurbished old hotel in India tell an interesting, comic and sometimes sad story that particularly touches older people. Some of England’s best elderly actors play a mixed group who upon arrival in Jaipur, India find that the hotel is far from what the glossing brochure portrayed. Judi Dench is terrific as the widow willing to live in a less-than-perfect new world where she can help customer service operators understand the culture of the British world. Maggie Smith, fresh from her biting but lovable role in Public Television’s Downton Abbey, at first seems far from adjusting to her new world that she struggles to afford. Tom Wilkinson as a retired judge is enveloped in the mystery and excitement of India. Bill Nighy loves his new-found country as he struggles to keep his wife, played by Penelope Wilton (also of Downton Abbey) from going home. Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup play two older folks looking for romance in a new world.

The plot centers on how all the principals react positively or negatively to the color, crowds and new foods of India. A subplot has the young manager of the hotel, played by Oev Patel, seeking ways to keep the hotel open in the midst of a financial crisis and his mother’s effort to have him come back to Delhi and an arranged marriage.

You put this many fine British actors together, even if the screenplay is a bit ragged at times, and you still have a very enjoyable film. Yes, the film has overtones of a television situation comedy. The ending does seem a little too convenient as we learn that one of the retired members of the group has special skills that can save the hotel. What is so appealing to an older audience is the woundedness of all the prime characters. They been through a lot and for the most part they soldier on and some even find new happiness.

But the prime reason to see the film is Judi Dench’s performance. She won an Oscar working with director Madden in Shakespeare in Love. And he lovingly combines with the actress to present a character who is beautiful and filled with grace.

The Motion Picture Association of America rates the film PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned). It includes some sexual situations. The Catholic News Service rates the film O – morally offensive. Personally, I find some of the situation comedies on network television at the 8 and 9 p.m. hour more offensive.

(Father Caswell is Inland Register archivist.)


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