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    I write and speak on all sorts of topics: ancient Christian spirituality and the Eastern Orthodox faith, the Jesus Prayer, marriage and family, the pro-life cause, cultural issues, and more. You can contact Cynthia Damaskos of the Orthodox Speakers Bureau if you’d like to bring me to an event. This Calendar will let you know when I’m in your neighborhood.


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Magic in the Moonlight

[National Review; July 25, 2014]

When they invent a really reliable time machine, I’m going back to the day I graduated from college. I was an English major who took electives like “German Film of the 1930s” and dreamed of being a movie critic for The Village Voice. (How did I end up here instead? It’s a long story.) One thing graduation-day me will ask is “How have movies changed in 40 years?”

I’ll say, “You can’t imagine how much better the visuals are.” Not only because of improved cameras, and not even considering the advent of CGI, but because such meticulous care is now taken with color design, costumes, lighting, locations, and set dressing. Even crummy movies provide an immersive, atmospheric experience. Modern-day filmmaking is consistently a feast for the eyes.

But, I’ll have to tell me, storytelling has gone back to kindergarten. In the Sixties and Seventies we saw a trend toward films that were complex, thought-provoking, and unafraid to withhold a happy ending. But today, story lines are obvious and predictable. The happy ending is signaled every step of the way, lest a viewer worry. It’s a variation on “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: today’s films are gloriously clothed, but, too often, there’s nothing inside.

Woody Allen’s latest movie, Magic in the Moonlight, does a magnificent job of fulfilling those contemporary expectations. It’s set in Provence and the Côte d’Azur in 1928, and the splendor onscreen is as lush as you could desire. The main character is Stanley (Colin Firth), who is by profession a stage magician called Wei Ling Soo; in sumptuous Chinese robes and a long pigtail he makes elephants disappear. He is also the age’s foremost debunker, often called on to expose the tricks of fortune-tellers, channelers, and table-rappers of all types. (This combination of magician and aggressive skeptic is perhaps modeled on James “The Amazing” Randi.)

We meet Stanley as he strides backstage in a fury, tearing off his costume while insulting autograph-seekers and spouting general abuse. A friend tells him, “You have all the charm of a typhus epidemic” (a line that recalls Allen’s writing from 50 years ago). Stanley derides the belief that life has meaning, saying it’s instead “nasty, brutish, and short. Is that Hobbes? I would have got along well with Hobbes.”

You’ve got it now; you grasp what this character is like. But the film won’t stop telling you. He and his friends keep repeating that he is a man of science, he is logical, he disdains belief in God or the supernatural, he revels in exposing frauds. “You are the greatest debunker of fake spiritualists ever,” a character says, speaking clearly and distinctly in case slower audience members have not yet grasped the point.

And that’s not the end of it. “There is of course no spirit world,” Stanley says. And “I’m a rational man who believes in a rational world.” And “I think Mr. Nietzsche has disposed of the God matter rather convincingly.” By this point even the empty seats are nodding. Yes, we get it; can we move on with the story?

Moving on, the situation is that Stanley’s old friend Howard (Simon McBurney), a less famous magician, is stumped by a young spiritualist staying with the prominent Catledge family. Sophie (Emma Stone) has told Howard things she could not possibly have known, and pulled off effects he can’t explain. He invites Stanley to take a look, and Stanley replies, “I can’t wait to see what gimmick she is using, unmask it, and throw it back in her face.” At this point a list of overly predictable remarks could be numbered, and Firth could simply say, “Two.”

Of course Sophie’s performance is seamless, and Stanley’s contempt turns to confusion. If the supernatural realm is real, it shakes his unbelief. The remainder of the story depicts Stanley’s grappling with metaphysics, and given that Allen himself has wrestled with these questions for decades, the movie’s concept showed promise. But viewers hoping for thoughtful exploration of the matter will be disappointed; we’ve got only 100 minutes to work with, so there’s no room for subtlety. There are only two choices: Either you’re logical, or you revel in the beauty and mystery of life. You can change the setting by flipping the little on–off switch in your soul.

Now an additional story line develops, because Sophie is charmed by Stanley from the moment they meet. She’s no match for him intellectually, and much is made of her poor education and general commonness. Sophie mistakenly ascribes “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable” to Dickens, the little dear. We all got a warm chuckle out of that. And you hardly need be told that she’s from Kalamazoo, for funny place names are the soul of wit.

Sophie already has a suitor, the young, handsome Catledge heir, who adores her and showers her with gifts. Yet she only has eyes for the middle-aged grumpus Stanley. It’s a one-way romance, for Stanley is immune to her charms. (In another early-Woody moment, he assures her that in certain lights she is somewhat attractive, and recommends the lighting scheme he uses on his elephant.) The movie’s initial story line about faith and doubt is joined by an equally unsubtle story line about a fresh young girl (Emma Stone is 26) bypassing a young, healthy man for an older, cranky one (Colin Firth is 53).

Maybe that’s where the real leap of faith is required. Old men wish with all their hearts that young women would find them sexy, and the ones who are rich and powerful can buy the semblance of such desire. But, given a desert-island situation, most young women would choose young men. (Young men reciprocate; a speed-dating company that tried to bring together sexually aggressive, well-preserved “cougars” with young men couldn’t get any young men to sign up.)

So this is not a realistic story line, but movies keep serving it up anyway. Audrey Hepburn made a cottage industry of it, yearning for Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (she 24 and playing a childlike teen, he 37), Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina(she 25, he 54), Fred Astaire in Funny Face (she 28, he 58), Cary Grant inCharade (she 34, he 59), and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady (she 35, he 56). Hollywood doesn’t keep making such movies because they hold a mirror to reality, but because Hollywood is run by rich old men, and it’s how they wish young women would behave.

There’s also something creepy in Sophie’s desire for Stanley; it has to do with our suspicion that Emma Stone is acting out Woody Allen’s fantasies. Long-running gossip about him, fair or not, inevitably sets a backdrop to any May–December story line. It’s dismaying now to re-watch his acclaimed Manhattan (1979) and see him (then 43) in bed with Mariel Hemingway (then 16). The lines he wrote for her to say include complaints that he doesn’t want to have sex often enough, and that he is reluctant to try kinky variations. Hemingway says that Allen gave (I want to say “took”) her first kiss. Fortunately he has stopped casting himself as the male lead, for the kiss he shared with Téa Leoni at the end of Hollywood Ending (2002) was unpleasant to behold. Other people’s fantasies are not always appealing.

As in most movies with the premise that a beautiful young woman is attracted to an older guy, the female lead is going to have to do some top-notch acting. It’s no insult to Colin Firth, handsome and gallant as he is, to recognize that Emma Stone does not convince us of her passion. In short, Magic in the Moonlight is thin on plot, dialogue, and characterization, and it cannot persuade us that the central romance is real — but it’s gorgeous to look at. You can’t hope to see anything more beautiful onscreen this year than the lives of the genteel wealthy, in the south of France, 1928.


A Summary of Orthodox Spirituality in St. Maximos

Every day I get an entry from the writings of St. Maximos the Confessor, from his Four “Centuries” (four sets of one hundred short sayings) on Love. They come in Greek and English. I don’t know who sends them; I expect someone has set himself a task of translating one a day.

As I read today’s I thought how absolutely mystified I would have been by it, a few years back.

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Leaping into Light

Springing from her lap he leaps,

my father, into light;

Grandmother holds him tight;

and Grandad penned the frame with time:

“MAR 30-1926”

and birthday “7-MONTHS.”

But all this fails to hold him back:

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The Fault in Our Stars

It was “beautifully tragic,” my young companion said, and judging from the sobs and sighing all around us, this opinion was widely shared. The film is based on the best-selling Young Adult book by the same title, authored by John Green (best known, with his brother Hank, for the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers). The novel bucked current trends by not being set in a near-future dystopia ruled by vampires. Instead it’s a dying-teenager story, but not of the usual sort. It’s literate and funny. It doesn’t exploit the drama of diagnosis, horror, and teary acceptance; the characters have had cancer for years already, and have worked out believably different ways of living with their condition. (As a one-time aspirant for the Episcopal priesthood, Green spent some time as a chaplain in a children’s hospital. Hard lessons learned greatly benefit the storytelling.)

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Tips for a Good Holy Week with Children (by Roxann Ashworth)

Holy Week is a long, intense, busy week, and sometimes the thought of going to all of those services with small children can be more than a parent wants to deal with, and the temptation to leave them at home or not go to church at all becomes very strong.  Let me encourage you to fight that temptation and bring your kids to as many services as possible.  I’m not saying that it will be easy or even necessarily fun, but it will be important for their future spiritual life.  You can look at it this way:  behaving in church takes practice.  With everything else in our lives, we know that practice once a week does not actually teach us much.  Consistent, even daily practice is required. Holy Week is a marathon—40 hours of church in 5 days, it is a great way to get some intense practice in for your children. 

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St. Mary of Egypt (for all ages)

St. Mary of Egypt

Feasts: April 1 and 5th Sunday of Great Lent

About 500 years after the Resurrection of our Lord, a holy monk by the name of Zosimas lived in a monastery by the Jordan River. He had lived as a monk since childhood and when he was about 50 years old he began to think that he had surpassed all the other monks in virtue and that no one could teach him anything he didn’t already know. To prevent such a prideful thought from taking root, God taught him a lesson.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel is surely the most Wes-Andersony of all the Wes Anderson movies, and if you’ve never seen a Wes Anderson movie, well, I don’t know what to tell you. Try this: of all contemporary filmmakers, Anderson is the one most likely to provoke reviewers to use the words “fey” and “twee.”

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[St Seraphim Prison Fellowship; Winter 2013]

 Are there crimes that cannot be forgiven?

Apollo was a shepherd, and had been hardened by his rough life. One day he saw a pregnant woman alone in the field, and was seized with curiosity to know how the unborn child lay in the womb. So he killed her; there was no one there to help her. He opened her body and looked upon the dying child.

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A Miracle of Flowers

Wes Smith’s column this week for First Things is about the flowers at his church that continued to be fresh, after a parishioner poured out the last of his holy water into one of the vases.


The comment of a skeptic at that site clarified for me a point of miscommunication. The skeptic seems to think we are claiming that holy water is magic, and if we tested this in a controlled environment it would have this effect on flowers every time. There would be a pattern, one that kept appearing in any place and time.

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The Public Atheists Refute an Imaginary God

Oliver Burkeman, a blogger for The Guardian, says that proponents of the atheist side of the God debate (where, he says, his sympathies lie) are being intellectually lazy. They attack a concept of God which imagines him as a sort of superhero, rather than grappling with the classic monotheistic view of God as the source and ground of reality. This is like anti-evolutionists refuting a distorted and absurd concept of evolution. Burkeman recommends David Bentley Hart’s “The Experience of God” so that they might grasp and then grapple with a more theologically-accurate concept of God. 

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