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In the Iron Man films, the second of which is currently in theaters, Robert Downey, Jr. portrays Anthony Stark, a brilliant scientist, engineer and narcissistic playboy who succeeds his father as the CEO of the family business.

This business, however, is not a neighborhood hardware store; it’s a multi-billion dollar weapons manufacturer that supplies arms to governments and terrorist groups around the world.

During a Middle East trip to demonstrate his company’s weapons, Tony is injured and captured by terrorists.  Tiny shrapnel from a bomb blast threaten to penetrate his heart, but he is saved by a doctor who implants an industrial-strength magnet in his chest. Tony must keep the magnet powered in order to prevent the shrapnel from moving into his heart and killing him.

Tony builds a crude, metal suit that powers the magnet and allows him to escape the terrorists. Once safely back home in America, he renounces the goals of the family business and pledges to do something more useful with his life.

He perfects another version of the metal suit, equipping it with a supersonic propulsion system, integrated wireless communications and plenty of high-tech weapons to fight the bad guys. He becomes Iron Man, a powerful force for good who succeeds in diminishing hostilities between warring nations. In Stark’s own words, he has “privatized world peace.”

Yet despite the powerful technology that protects his outside, the technology inside him is threatening his life. The mineral that powers the magnet and keeps his heart safe is slowly poisoning his body.

As I watched this movie, my mind wandered to other uses of “iron man” in our culture.

For instance, the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii is the ultimate day-long test of strength and endurance. Competitors must be proficient in three different athletic events as they first swim 2.4 miles in the Pacific Ocean, bicycle 112 miles over mountainous island roads and then finish with a 26.2 mile (full marathon) run. The winner is proclaimed Iron Man of the year.

Whew, that is a lot of exercise for one day. I can’t even find time for a long walk around the neighborhood.

My friend Adele tells me that I need to make time for exercise. “Thirty to sixty minutes a day, four days a week – that’s all you need for a healthy heart and a long life with your family.” I don’t doubt her advice. She’s a nurse who practices what she preaches – she works out most days at the gym.

But I wonder why I can’t exercise on a regular basis. It’s not ignorance – I know the health benefits of regular exercise. It’s not laziness – between work, writing and singing at church, I stay busy. I suppose it’s a matter of commitment – focusing only on the activities that are vital to my health and well being: activities like exercising, praying, thanking God for my blessings, honoring my wife, loving my family, lifting up others with my words and deeds.

It’s not easy to do this day after day. These activities, though very meaningful, become very familiar, mundane and sometimes even boring. It’s also difficult to focus on them in today’s culture when advertisements constantly interrupt my day and try to sell me something new. “New is better!” the ads proclaim.

I don’t need anything new. Everything I need that is good and wholesome is already within my reach. I just need to remind myself what’s most important and concentrate on the present.

Legendary coach John Wooden motivated his players with innumerable life lessons that also applied to the game of basketball. “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can,” he once said.

Coach Wooden was preceded in death by his beloved wife Nell. The day he died, he reportedly asked his son to give him a shave. Asked why, he replied “I always shave before I see Nell.” He was an Iron Man in so many ways.

Baseball players Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken, Jr. are two more enduring examples. They never stayed home sick; they never took a “mental health day.” They played in every game for more than thirteen years, Cal finishing his streak in the sixteenth year. They played their entire career with just one team, never leaving one to play with another. They were baseball’s Iron Men.

Where did they find the strength to play on, day after day? Where do we find our daily bread to nourish our souls and keep us strong in our relationships and responsibilities?

C.S. Lewis wrote that “Man is like a tin soldier who can only be brought to real life, bit by bit, by the presence of Christ.”

We find that presence in the Eucharist. At Mass we pray for blessings from the Holy Trinity so that we may live strong in our faith and along our daily walk in this world.

Even Tony Stark needed help. With newly-discovered information from his father, Tony created a new, three-sided substance with unlimited power. Once he placed it near his human heart, he was no longer in mortal danger.

If it was only that easy. Live strong, iron men.

CF

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First published in the June 13, 2010 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2010 Christopher Fenoglio

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Nobody told me there’d be days like this.
Nobody told me there’d be days like this.
Nobody told me there’d be days like this.
Strange days indeed, most peculiar, Mama.  –  John Lennon

The rains fell steadily for two days, swelling creeks and rivers over their banks into thousands of living rooms, basements and businesses in Middle Tennessee.

In a flash, the floods swept upon families and friends, endangering their lives and all of their possessions.

Answering the calls for help, then and still, are ordinary people performing extraordinary deeds of kindness, sacrifice and generosity. These everyday heroes don’t wear red capes, black cowls or powerful mechanical suits. They wear t-shirts, overalls, tennis shoes and business suits. They are helpful, hopeful, rich and poor. They are family, friends, neighbors and citizens who will no longer be called strangers.

They are heroes.

• • •

In 1949, American mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the seminal work about heroes in ancient and modern mythologies. His work inspired countless authors and screenwriters, including George Lucas, who leaned heavily on the work when he created the Star Wars film series.

The Hero with a Thousand FacesIn his writings, Campbell explored the theory that the great mythologies of the world have survived through the ages because they share a common structure, which Campbell labeled the “monomyth.”

In the introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell summarized the monomyth: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

There are twelve stages of a hero’s journey. For example, the hero starts in the ordinary world but receives a call to adventure, requiring the hero to leave his/her normal surroundings and enter a world of unusual powers and strange events.

If the hero chooses to enter this strange world, he/she must complete a number of hard tasks alone or with companions, which Campbell calls a road of trials. At its most intense, the hero must survive a severe challenge.

If the hero survives the trials, he/she may receive a great reward (boon) which often involves important self-knowledge that the hero realizes from the experience.

The hero must then decide whether he/she will return to the ordinary world, often facing new trials along the way. Upon a successful return, the hero may use the reward to improve the world (the application of the boon).

• • •

In addition to Odysseus (Ulysses) in Homer’s Odyssey and Perseus in Clash of the Titans, the hero’s journey is illustrated in many contemporary films and literary works.

Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars series leaves the desert planet of Tatooine, learns the ways of the Force, joins Hans Solo and the Rebel Alliance to battle the Empire, blows up the Death Star and influences the eventual destruction of the evil Emperor. His actions help restore peace to the galaxy.

Simba in The Lion King leaves the comforting care of the pride when his father is tragically killed by a stampede of wildebeests. He befriends Pumbaa and Timon in the jungle and grows to be a strong lion who realizes that he is the son of the king. He returns to the pride and leads the lions to a victory over his evil uncle and the hyenas, which restores the natural order to the jungle.

Harry in the Harry Potter series faces is a recent incarnation of the classic hero. He leaves the boring and oppressive home of his aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, to enter the magical world at Hogwarts. With his friends Ron and Hermione, they battle powerful creatures and evil men while growing in wisdom and abilities. As we will see in the final two films, Harry must fight the ultimate test of his abilities and character by facing Lord Voldemort once again.

The greatest example of the hero’s journey can be found in the life of Jesus the Christ. Jesus left his humble beginnings and journeyed into the wilderness to tell us about God’s love. With the apostles beside him, he performed great deeds and taught great lessons, despite the forces gathering to discredit and punish him. He met the severest challenge by dying on the cross for our sins, giving us the reward of eternal salvation.

• • •

Here in Middle Tennessee, the journeys of many heroes have been documented by the media and retold by family and friends as we deal with the aftermath of the floods.

On May 1 we lived in our ordinary world, facing our daily duties as the rains started to fall. By the afternoon of May 2, we lived in an extraordinary world where the power of nature threatened our homes, our property and our lives.

But like the heroes of classic mythology and contemporary culture, and in the footsteps of Jesus our Savior, we came together with others in our community to battle this powerful force. We waded through waters to carry others to safety. We drove boats down flooded streets to rescue the stranded. We organized food, clothing and fundraising drives to help those who lost everything.

We are heroes – yesterday, today and tomorrow – as we continue, with the grace of God, to make this community a better place in which to live.

We love. We work. We clean up. We rebuild. – Lori Lenz

CF


Originally published in the May 14, 2010 issue of The Tennessee Register.

© 2010 Christopher Fenoglio

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Though I enjoy watching new movies, I love to watch certain movies again and again, depending on the calendar.

In the fall I imagine I am sitting in Notre Dame Stadium, chanting with the crowd “Rudy, Rudy.” At Christmas I am shopping in Bedford Falls and discussing my wonderful life with George Bailey. As spring approaches, I am helping Ray Kinsella plow up his corn and build his field of dreams.

The Passion of the ChristI look forward to these films and the happy mood they put me in. However, every Lent I make a concerted effort to watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Unlike the other films, this one puts me in a somber, reflective mood that’s perfect as I prepare for Holy Week.

It helps that Mel Gibson and his production team took great measures to create a realistic portrayal of Roman-occupied Jerusalem and the dramatic events during that first Holy Week.

Artistic inspiration
When you watch Gibson’s film, it looks like you have stepped into a painting by Caravaggio, an Italian painter during the Baroque period. Like the painter, the filmmakers used multiple lighting schemes, such as the shades of blue in Gethsemane or shades of gold in the Temple, to create specific moods or “emotional realities” throughout the film. The use of slow motion techniques adds to these moods.

To stage the dramatic last scene of the crucifixion sequence, Gibson used the painting “The Pieta” by French artist William Bouguereau for inspiration. After Jesus is taken down from the cross, Mary holds the crucified Christ. The painting and the final scene show Mary, not looking at Jesus, but straight at us with a far-away look in her eyes. She is strong; she does not break down like other women, but the pain is there. “Both the painting and this scene have the same essence, the same look in Mary’s eyes, sort of a pleading grief, full of pain,” says Gibson in the DVD extras.

Languages and subtitles
The film’s dialogue was recorded in two of the languages spoken at that time: Aramaic and Latin, along with English subtitles. “Using Aramaic and Latin brings people backward in time” says Rev. William J. Fulco, a Jesuit language scholar who served as the film’s translator. “We are like flies on the wall to the Jesus event.”

The filmmakers also used the languages to artistically convey a depth to Jesus’ personality and his conviction to complete his task. When Jesus appears before Pontius Pilate for the first time, Pilate addresses him in Aramaic. As a good administrator stationed in Jerusalem for eleven years, Pilate would have known the local dialect. Pilate asks him in Aramaic “Are you the King of the Jews?” However, Jesus answers Pilate in Latin. The filmmakers wanted to show that Jesus knew what Pilate was doing and that he was trying to beat Pilate at his own game.

Storytelling
Throughout the story arc that starts in Gethsemane and ends on Calvary, there are short flashbacks to earlier times in Jesus’ life. When Pilate is washing his hands, Jesus recalls the day before when he washed his hands before the Last Supper and broke bread with his disciples. As Jesus nears the large hill of Calvary, he remembers standing on a hill, teaching the people to “love your enemies” and to pray for them.

One of the most poignant moments is when Jesus carries the cross and falls for the second time. His mother Mary runs to him, just as she did many years ago when a young Jesus tripped and fell. “I’m here,” she tells him. Jesus, like all children, confides in his mother. Taking her face in his hand, he utters a line from the Book of Revelation: “See, mother, I make all things new.”

Special effects
The filmmakers used special makeup and visual effects to realistically depict the wounds Jesus received during the scourging and the crucifixion. Makeup sessions for Jim Caviezel (who portrayed Jesus) lasted anywhere between three to eight hours. During this time, the makeup artists applied large sheets of rubber prosthetic wounds all over his body. Then in post production work, computer artists applied “digital skin” patches that covered up the wounds. As a Roman guard swung a cane or a digital whip and appeared to hit Jesus, the skin patch was digitally wiped away, revealing the artificial wounds underneath.

“One of the biggest struggles was trying to make the make the makeup as real as possible and at the same time retain a human element, something the audience could connect to,” says Christien Tinsley, one of the makeup artists.

Whenever I watch The Passion of the Christ, I feel shock, despair, embarrassment and amazement. The film helps me understand, ever so slightly, how terrible the crucifixion must have been for our Lord.

Since he endured this suffering for me, the least I can do every Lenten season is watch the film, try to understand what he went through, and then dedicate my life to be more like him. That is my reel life journey.

It can be yours, too.

CF


Originally published in the March 19, 2010 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2010 Christopher Fenoglio

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I am alone.      

I walk along a shadowed path, a dark Lenten journey into self consideration.

Night has fallen early; I can barely see the way ahead. I stumble and fall, many times, for I am weak and unsure of my way. Where should I turn?

The black forest closes around me, tall trees of sins surround me: mighty redwoods of past transgressions on the left, massive oaks of inaction on the right.

Suddenly my feet step onto a metal sidewalk that carries me into the darkness. It slowly descends, a one-way escalator, a monstrous, mechanical movement machine, pulling me down into a deep chasm.

Like a giant indoor shopping mall, each level I pass has dozens of window displays. But instead of stores fronts, each display is a large video screen with film adaptations of my life, scenes in which I take no pride.      

I am George McFly in Back to the Future—cowardly, intimidated by aggressive people and insecure about my writing.

I am Peter Banning in Hook—so consumed by my job that I forget who I am and what’s most important in life. So focused on finances, I yell at my children when things are not going right.

Lower and lower I glide to the levels below.

I am Lester Burnham in American Beauty—restless and easily distracted by a lustful imagination. Faced with familiar temptations, I covet an irresponsible future.

I am Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind—prideful and boastful, I care more about what happens to me than others. I walk away instead of dealing with matters most important.

Deeper into the darkness I descend.

I am Peter in The Passion of the Christ—bragging that I will follow Our Lord wherever he goes. However, when faced with trouble and perhaps my own mortality, I deny His existence three times.      

I am Michael Corleone in The Godfather—first an innocent family member, then a good soldier. With moderate success, I am tempted by the power and feel the overwhelming need to control every situation, no matter the cost.

Lower and lower the steps descend to final level. A sign hangs overhead the entrance to Hades: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”   

I am Christy Nielsen in What Dreams May Come. I have died in a car accident, like my children before me. All three deaths were terrible accidents, yet my Annie blames herself for each of them. She takes her own life and ends up in Hell.

Yet Hell is not fire and brimstone. The real Hell is your life gone badly, in its worst possible state. You must spend eternity living that life, without knowing kindness, peace or love.

styx1I must find Annie in this blackest corner of Hell and convince her that she was wrong about her life. I cross a sea of faces—helpless souls crying for help. Thousands of bodies floating in the dark water claw at my boat. 

Upon reaching the shore, I walk past beached ocean liners, the steel ships broken and smoldering, their passengers trapped by flames and unbreakable chains.

Against all odds, I find Annie, my soul mate, and remind her of our love. I convince her that I will remain with her always, no matter the outcome. Her eyes open wide with recognition and her heart fills with gladness. She is lifted up and disappears to our peaceful corner of heaven.   

Yet I remain, for my sins weigh heavily upon my heart.

Softly, clearly, the sweet melody and powerful words of Rory Cooney’s song come to mind: Change our hearts, this time, your Word says it can be. Change our minds, this time, your life could make us free. We are the people your call set apart, Lord this time, change our hearts.

I acknowledge my past sins and open my sorrowful heart to God, begging for his forgiveness.

There in a dark corner, away from everything else, a light softly glows. I look and see it coming from a cave of freshly hewn rock. The stone that once covered the opening has been rolled away.

As I step inside, I see the end of a tree, a giant log rising upward toward the heavens. I step onto the timber and climb, my feet steadied by the nails pounded into the trunk.

The timber rises higher and higher, but it does not fall. It is supported by another timber that crosses underneath and holds it up. The light from above guides me home.

I feel alive again with hope, for all is forgiven. By the strength of this cross I am free.

I rise above the darkness to see the sun rise over the mountain of joy. It illuminates the world and out shines the midnight stars.

I am alone…no more.

CF
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First published in the March 20, 2009 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2009 Christopher Fenoglio.

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Changes are everywhere. The New Year approaches. Soon we will change our calendars to 2009.

Historic changes are underway in Washington, DC as Barack Obama prepares for his inauguration as the 44th President of the United States.

Changes in jobs, retirement funds and consumer confidence levels happen daily across America as unemployment rises.

How do we deal with changes in our lives? Do we view changes as opportunities in which to excel or tragedies in which to wallow in doubt and fear? To whom should we turn for comfort and guidance?

Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future. (John F. Kennedy)

harry-potter-5-posterThere’s a moment near the end of the fourth film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Harry, Hermione and Ron are talking about Lord Voldemort, who has taken shape again to terrify the wizardry world and the students at Hogwarts.

“This is all going to change, isn’t it?” asks Hermione.

Harry, who is the object of Voldemort’s hatred, courageously answers “Yes” with a certainty that is far wiser than his years. He and his friends realize that their world will be different in the future, that there will be hardships to bear and battles to fight.

But who will fight the dark forces in their world? Should they follow the suggestions of the elders at the beginning of the fifth film (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and just stay out of the way? No, says Harry, if Voldemort is gathering an army of Death Eaters to change the world as they know it, then he and his friends want to fight. He teaches his friends defenses against the Dark Arts and they succeed in helping the elders win the first battle.

They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself. (Andy Warhol).

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Faramir is presented with a great opportunity to profit from the changing fortunes of war. The second son of Lord Denethor, Steward of Gondor, Faramir grew up in the shadow of his older brother Boromir, who was favored by his father.

One day while patrolling the woods of Ithilien, he captures the hobbits Frodo and Sam, who are on their way to Mordor to destroy the One Ring of Sauron.

All Faramir has to do is reach out and take the powerful ring, and he can win the favor of his father. “A chance for Faramir to prove his worth,” he mutters to himself. This acquisition would change the war for Gondor and garner considerable wealth and power for Faramir.

In the end, however, he does not succumb to the ambitions that destroyed his brother. Despite the attraction to profit from the changes to his own world, he finds the strength to remain true to himself, setting Frodo free to continue his quest.

People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built. (Eleanor Roosevelt)

For the past couple of months, I changed my regular weekend schedule to sing during Advent with the Chancery Choir of Glen Leven Presbyterian Church on Franklin Road. While the rehearsals and services have added more miles to the Mercury, the time spent has been very rewarding, for a couple reasons.

First, it reminded me of my teen years when I went to Mass on Sunday mornings and then sang in the First Baptist Youth Choir on Sunday nights with my high school girlfriend. Worshipping with friends at other Christian churches is usually a step outside my comfort zone. Yet these special events help me realize that the similarities of our Christian faiths greatly outnumber the differences.

Secondly, I was introduced to an inspired homilist, Dr. Mark Bryan, the pastor of Glen Leven Presbyterian Church. Each week he delivered a fresh look at Holy Scripture and its place in our lives.

Recently he was speaking about the prophecies of Isaiah and their fulfillment in the birth of Jesus the Christ. Even though our lives are like the grasses of the fields (Is 40, 6-9), soon to wither and die, there is comfort to be found.

“Though the world is changing, though we are constantly in transition, though our lives are short and fleeting, there is one constant and stable thing…God’s Word,” said Dr. Bryan. “God’s promise of faithfulness to us, God’s covenant with us is constant, though all of life and all of the world is changing around us.”

May God’s Word be a constant comfort and companion to you and your family as we step forward into the New Year.

CF

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First published in the December 28, 2008 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2008 Christopher Fenoglio.

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A recent column in The Tennessean explored the writer’s opinion that her generation is too concerned with superficial matters, much more so than her parents’ generation.

She told the story of a diamond ring she purchased for her mother to replace the old $5 wedding ring her father bought decades ago. She was sure that her mother would love the sparkling new diamond ring. Her mother politely returned the gift, saying she preferred to wear the $5 ring because it was much more meaningful.

This struck me as a good lesson for our children. As parents of three young adults, my wife Linda and I hope that we also are teaching our children that there are deeper meanings in our culture, meanings that can be seen through the lens of our Catholic faith.

The glamour of a new car or new clothes, the fame of being on YouTube, or spending lots of money on meaningless stuff – all these things pale in comparison to the warmth of true friendship, the joy in a young child’s laugh, and the peace from thoughtful prayer.

But as our children grow older, will they remember the lessons we taught them? Will they appreciate the “substantial” over the “superficial?”

Fortunately, we took a giant step in the education of our children when we sent them to Catholic schools. Not only did they get a superb education, they learned that there is more to life on this planet than to consume and be entertained.

They learned about working hard as a team to achieve a common goal, respecting others and being true to God’s word.

These lessons were reinforced a couple weeks ago when I sang in the pit choir for the Father Ryan High School Purple Masque Players’ production of Seussical, a musical that combines a number of storylines from the works of Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss.

On the surface, these stories are entertaining tales that delight readers of all ages with colorful characters and ridiculous rhymes. But underneath the simple language are deeper truths that resonate through our faith and culture. The following are just a few examples:

Respect life
Horton the Elephant is a kind-hearted pachyderm that hears a faint voice floating through the air on a speck of dust. The voice is one of the Whos, an entire planet of microscopic individuals. The speck of dust lands on a stem of clover, which Horton must protect from mischievous monkeys, a sour kangaroo and a black-bottomed eagle.

During his struggles, Horton endures ridicule and shame from the jungle inhabitants that don’t believe Horton or the existence of the Whos. But Horton perseveres and upholds the Whos’ right to live, for a “person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Drugs are unnatural
One creature that appreciates Horton’s big heart is Gertrude McFuzz. Gertrude is a bird with a beautiful voice but below-average plumage. She can’t get Horton to notice her and blames the situation on her one-feather tail. So to attract Horton’s attention and affection, she follows the advice of Mayzie LaBird, another bird with an amazing tail. Mayzie tells Gertrude to visit Doctor Dake by the Lake and get some pills to artificially enhance her tail.

Pleased with the initial results, Gertrude goes overboard and takes lots of pills. But her colorful tail grows so large and long that she can’t fly. Even walking is a struggle as she drags the tail everywhere she goes. In the end, she asks the doctor to pluck the unnatural feathers out, leaving her simple, natural tail. Horton finally notices her; not for her tail, but for her character.

Virtues of adoption
Amazing Mayzie finds herself in a strange predicament: sitting on an egg she laid after “three weeks of bliss” with Tweet McFirth. A free spirit and not interested in settling down to raise a youngster, Mayzie convinces reliable Horton to sit (carefully!) on her egg while she takes the afternoon off. Horton agrees to egg-sit for a short time, as long as Mayzie returns in a few hours.

Unfortunately for Horton, she’s not at all reliable, and a few hours stretch to more than 50 weeks. But Horton doesn’t waver and does whatever it takes to preserve the life in the egg, even if it means more ridicule as a circus act. In the end, Horton and Gertrude commit together to raise the newly-hatched “elephant bird.”

From my vantage point, high school students, adults and grade school students enjoyed the production and the messages beneath the story. The students from St. Ann School even showed up wearing their own Dr. Seuss character costumes.

It’s good to know that our Catholic schools are using contemporary literature to illustrate the substantial, deeper meanings of our culture.

On May 18, our son Tommy will walk down the aisle with his Father Ryan classmates during graduation exercises, the last of our children to do so. As they all take the next step towards adulthood, may they remember the lessons of their Catholic education and walk into deeper relationships with God and their faith.

CF
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First published in the May 16, 2008 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2008 Christopher Fenoglio

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As a nurse at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, my wife Linda has seen more than her fair share of pain and suffering.

Beautiful, smiling children become sick and travel to the hospital for care and cures. Many leave the hospital after their stays and return home to happy childhoods and long lives. Some, however, succumb to their illnesses and return instead to God’s loving arms.

Their families and caregivers are left on earth to deal with the pain and suffering from their loss.

How could God, the source of all love and goodness, allow this suffering to happen?

It’s a question explored by author C. S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain. The problem with understanding pain, writes Lewis, is “how, perceiving a suffering world, and being assured, on quite different grounds, that God is good, we are to conceive that goodness and that suffering without a contradiction.”

Lewis, renowned for his writings on Christian apologetics (the branch of theology concerned with the defense or proof of Christianity), uses logic and intellect to explain that suffering can exist in a world created by a loving God. He writes further: “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you will find that you have excluded life itself.”

He used the same logical thought process when he turned away from atheism and rediscovered his own Christian faith.

But logic can only explain so much; the heart must also believe. Lewis’s faith is later put to the test when he meets and falls in love with Helen Joy (Davidman) Gresham, a story portrayed in the 1993 film Shadowlands.

Lewis (portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins), an Oxford professor and author of best selling books, has created a rather comfortable life for himself. He shares a home with his brother Warnie, is given meals and clean rooms by a housekeeper, is adored by readers around the world and is respected by his students and fellow professors.

He lectures to large crowds about the presence of God in the world and how suffering is just a tool. “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Suffering is more of an intellectual concept than reality for Lewis. He is very much in control of his life.

Yet he recognizes that he lives in the shadowlands, “wanting to be somewhere else, waiting for something new, looking around the next corner, the next hill.”

That changes when he meets Gresham (Debra Winger), an American poet who wrote letters to Lewis years before they met personally. Divorced from her husband, Gresham and her son Douglas move to London and continue their friendship with Lewis.

Their friendship slowly builds into a real love that delivers great happiness to Lewis. No longer wanting to be somewhere else, he is happy in the here and now.

But with the happiness comes suffering, for Gresham has terminal cancer. During a lovely trip through the country, Lewis and Gresham find happiness in each other’s company. Yet Lewis doesn’t want to talk about her death, fearing the conversation will spoil the moment.

But Gresham presses on. “The pain then is part of the happiness now – that’s the deal.”

Talking about their love and their future, no matter how difficult, makes both the pain and happiness real. By exploring both emotions now while they are together, they reach a love that is deeper than simple happiness. Through the suffering, they find comfort, peace and love.

Through our journeys through Lent, we know from Scriptures that the innocent Christ suffered great physical pain and mental anguish to wipe clean the stain of our sins.

His pain then is part of our happiness now.

In last week’s second reading (1 Peter 2:20b-25), we heard Peter’s words “Beloved, if you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.”

In this week’s gospel (John 14:1-12), Jesus tells his disciples “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Through his suffering, we come to know a love that is much deeper than simple happiness.

As for the children at the hospital, it’s still very difficult to understand why some of them die at an early age. Perhaps all we can do is trust that God is using their short lives to shine light on ours.

Charlie, a special patient who received loving care from Linda, used to divide his meal of white bread and give it away. “One for me, for Mommy, one for Daddy, one for you, one for everyone!” he would say many times. While he now smiles in heaven, his memory remains a joy in our lives.

Our pain then is part of our happiness now.

CF
_______________________________________________________
First published in the April 18, 2008 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2008 Christopher Fenoglio

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