Monday, January 26, 2015

The Australian Roots of My Progressive Catholicism

Given my recent sharing about the significance of my first years in the U.S. (1994-1996), one might think that it was during this time that I first became interested in and outspoken about issues from a progressive Catholic perspective. That's actually not the case.

My "progressive Catholicism" has Australian roots, and given my homeland's history (and celebration) of trouble-makers, outliers and "wild colonial boys" of one kind or another, this really shouldn't be surprising!

Right: Hello, boys! Jon Finch (far right) as the "gentleman bushranger" Ben Hall (1837-1865) in the 1975 Australian TV series about the outlaw's exploits and life.


Following is a paper I wrote for a theology class in 1994, my first year of study at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota. As you'll see, it documents events that took place the previous year when I was living and teaching in Australia.

I share it this morning as today, Australia Day, is the 21st anniversary of my arrival from Australia to the United States.


________________________________



The Church as the People of God

A Reflection Paper
by
Michael Bayly

October 31, 1994



Last month I attended the annual Renaissance Festival in Shakopee, Minnesota. This experience reaffirmed for me an image of Church that I’ve had for several years.

In the would-be medieval setting of the festival I observed a diversity of people, many in costume, united in their desire to contribute to – and share in – a unique experience. From clowning court jesters and satyr-like rogues to elegant lords and ladies and pious friars and nuns, those re-enacting the Renaissance period exuded a spirit of fellowship and camaraderie.

Difference and diversity were what gave the festival its unique and contagious sense of involvement and excitement. The atmosphere deemed no one or nothing out of place – the gypsies, the knights, the elephants, the wizards, the craftsmen and women, the musicians – all were given credence and validity by the overwhelming sense of shared vision and participation.



The festival paralleled my image of the church as the people of God – an image that sees the Christian community as a vibrant and spiritually-evolving assortment of individuals united in their openness to the mystery dimension of life and in their seeking to understand, embody, and celebrate this mystery as exemplified by Jesus.

Right: A photograph of me taken in Goulburn in 1993.

My articulation of this understanding of church was consolidated for me in 1993 by my involvement in an exchange of letters-to-the-editor of the Goulburn Post newspaper. At that time I was teaching in Goulburn, New South Wales, Australia at Sts. Peter and Paul’s Primary School. I had also recently graduated from the Australian Catholic University with a Graduate Diploma in Religious Education. My three years of part-time study at the nearby Canberra campus of this progressive institution was instrumental in my theological development, and the views I expressed through the Goulburn Post owe much to my studies at the Australian Catholic University.

In April of 1993, Goulburn resident Mrs. Maree Kennedy wrote a letter to the editor of the Goulburn Post warning Catholics of the “heresy of Modernism.” The previous year, when debate was running high over female ordination in the Anglican church and when controversy swirled around the Australian Broadcasting Corporation series Brides of Christ, I had exchanged conflicting views through our local paper with Mrs. Kennedy and the parish priest of North Goulburn, Fr. Kevin Brannely. Compared to the furor that was soon to erupt, however, that exchange was a mere ripple.

I responded to Mrs. Kennedy’s April 1993 letter and perhaps somewhat bluntly, referred to Catholics like her as being “entrenched in the Roman Catholic subculture” – one dominated by “a patriarchal hierarchy and claims of infallibility on questions of faith and morals.” Naturally enough, my remarks were interpreted as a condemnation of the church by those who did in fact view “the church” as exclusively the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Implied in my letter was a decidedly ecumenical understanding of church and thus the belief that the church is bigger than the hierarchy in Rome. Perhaps if I had explicitly stated this, I might have averted the “snowball” reaction which I had set in motion.

A week after the publication of my response to Mrs. Kennedy, C. Pearson from the outlying village of Breadalbane wrote a length, somewhat erratic defense of the concept of church that I had labeled a subculture. The hallmarks of Pearson’s church were the Vicar of Christ, “revealed Truth, the teaching of the Magisterium, the infallibility of the Pope in faith and morals, the Sacrament of Confession, and the Blessed Eucharist.”

Indirectly, Pearson accused me of being “gutless,” and labeled the faith I described as “watered-down.” In conclusion, Pearson demanded to know: “From whom does your authority come, Mr. Bayly?”

Needles to say, I was somewhat stunned by the vehement tone of Pearson’s letter, though as my good friend Cathy Conroy pointed out, I had attacked something of immense importance to both Kennedy and Pearson: their understanding of church and thus their understanding of faith. I decided to lie low and carefully consider how I should respond as, in my mind, Pearson’s concluding question made it impossible for me not to.

In May I attended a family gathering in Wagga Wagga. It was my niece’s christening, and my parents, grandmothers, brothers, sisters-in-law, and nephews spent the weekend at a motel complex in the city.

Left: Members of my family in Wagga Wagga, May 1993. From left: my nephews Ryan and Liam; Dad; my older brother Chris; my younger brother Tim (holding Layne); my paternal grandmother, Belle Smith; and my maternal grandmother, Olive Sparkes.

It was here in the early hours of a Sunday morning that I was inspired to write my response to C. Pearson. The words seemed to simply flow from my pen. It was a very special experience, through which I had a strong sense of the presence and guidance of the Spirit.

Returning to Goulburn I experienced again the presence and wise counsel of God, this time through the advice and recommendations of others – primarily Bernadette McGowan, the wife of my principal – regarding the tone of my response.

Published under the headline “Catholic Liberation Causing Division,” my response clearly articulated an alternative model of church to that of C. Pearson’s. At the same time I identified and critiqued the model of church championed by Catholics such as Pearson and Kennedy, a model which I maintained was indeed a subculture.

C. Pearson asks how dare I label the Roman Catholic faith tradition a subculture. I ask C. Pearson and reactionaries like him: how dare you deform the vision of community inspired by Christ and mold for yourselves within the Catholic tradition a subculture that is withdrawn from the world and which purports to have sole access to and control of the free-flowing gift of the Spirit.

It is this subculture that is the warped vision of church that Mr. Pearson advocates. It is a vision that the Second Vatican Council rebuked in the 1960s, and one that is in complete contract to the vision of community that Jesus instilled in his followers. For far from being something separate from the world, Jesus’ vision of what we now term “the church” calls us to be as yeast in bread, permeating our world and spreading – through word and action – the good news of God’s unconditional love and liberating power.

The view of church offered by Mr. Pearson in incapable of doing this as, first, it sees itself separate from the world which it despises and, second, alienates all whose experiences take them beyond its narrow confines of interpretation and understanding.

Mr. Pearson asks from where does my authority come, a usual question from those entrenched in a subculture of religious legalism, infallibility, and an unrealistic and uncompassionate black and white view of spiritual and moral matters. My authority comes from the God-given gift of an informed conscience – one developed and sustained by my relationship with the Risen Christ. It is a conscience guided but not dictated by the Roman Catholic faith tradition, and it’s one that has been shaped by life experiences lived in prayerful union with Christ and openness to the Spirit. It has been these experiences that have provided me opportunities to reflect upon and challenge certain elitist and narrow aspects of the Catholic tradition. [Of course, what's unspoken here is that the most important "life experiences" for me at that time were to do with my growing into awareness and inner acceptance of my homosexuality. See, for instance, here here, and here.]

They are experiences that have liberated me from a black and white view of many spiritual and moral matters, a view that the church – the people of God – is, as a whole, in the process of being liberated from. This is the re-birthing I metaphorically referred to in my previous letter. It’s a rebirth that reactionaries and traditionalist fear as it challenges their black and white perception of many complex theological and moral issues, a perception that gives them a false sense of security and which fuels religious bigotry and elitism.

The Second Vatican Council was instrumental in instigating this process of liberation for Catholics. What a pity that so many choose not to be open to the transforming spirit of the council – the transforming Spirit of God.

The greatest obstacle preventing Catholic reactionaries from participating in this liberating process of which the church is in the midst, is their erroneous belief that what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God is now exclusively the Roman Catholic faith tradition. What is it that blinds them from perceiving the creative work of the Spirit beyond the boundaries of their subculture?

It is ironic that it is these reactionaries, fearful of change, who label as “gutless” those of us striving to continue Christ’s mission of liberation. Do they really perceive the wider church to be as stagnant as their subculture? Do they honestly believe that the church is incapable of further growth in understanding of itself and of a range of issues? Why can’t they acknowledge that while they choose to remain unresponsive, others are capable of accepting the challenges inspired by the Spirit of transformation?

If anyone is “gutless” in today’s church it is those who refuse the challenge of liberation and openness that Jesus calls us to embrace.

It requires only narrow-mindedness and arrogance to envision the church as a hierarchical institution guarding a sole pool of revealed truth. Yet it takes courage and compassion to embrace the reality that the church is comprised of individuals – male, female, heterosexual, homosexual, western, indigenous, Catholic, Protestant – whose lives when lived in union with God are capable of being well-springs of revealed truth.

How dare anyone deny the Spirit of God its freedom to “blow where it will.”


In the weeks preceding the publication of the above response to Pearson, two pieces were published in the Goulburn Post which added “fuel to the fire,” so to speak. The first was a letter from a friend and former student, Garth Lamb (pictured seated at right with our mutual friend Jeremiah McGowan). Garth, a student at St. Patrick’s College in Goulburn, wrote a letter that with all the sincerity and directness of his youth, critiqued and challenged the fundamentalist perspective of Kennedy and Pearson. I consider Garth’s concluding paragraph one of the greatest compliments every made to me.

At one time I had a fundamentalist teacher who told us that the stories of the Bible happened exactly as they were written. The teacher offered the explanation that “since Gad can do anything, who are we to question?”

Mr. Bayly gave me a better explanation, offering that “not all the stories are literally true but that there is a good message behind them.” Through this explanation and his general teaching I now understand the Bible a lot better and feel closer to God.

In twenty years time my age group will be managing this world. I’m glad that there are some people today who will give us a more open view of religion and the way God wants us to live.

Thank you, Mr. Bayly, for opening my mind to other ways of understanding and for helping me see what Jesus’ message was all about.


In the ensuing weeks Garth’s words would be ones I would come back to again and again as an invaluable source of affirmation and strength.

The second piece published at around this same time in the Goulburn Post was an article about my graduation from the Australian Catholic University. The actual graduation ceremony occurred in late April of 1993, and during the proceedings I was awarded the university’s prize for academic excellence. My parents made the eight-hour trip by car from my hometown of Gunnedah and, along with Mike and Bernadette McGowan and their eldest son Jeremiah, attended the ceremony in Canberra.



Above: Mum (center) with Mike and Bernadette McGowan – Canberra, April 1993.


Both the article about my graduation and Garth’s letter identified me as a teacher at Sts. Peter and Paul’s Catholic Primary School. In the eyes of Kennedy and Pearson I was no longer merely a dissenting voice but a “heterodox” teacher corrupting young minds.

Their response to this information and to my letter of May 14 was swift and savage. In two separate letters they rebuked my understanding of church (primarily by reiterating their own “true” understanding) and attacked me personally with regards my spiritual and educational credibility: “Your assertions, Mr. Bayly, are spurious and lack logic, truth, reality, commonsense and authority. They show ignorance of church history and ignorance of the faith;” “The letters of Michael Bayly are a sad example of baptized Catholics who have evidently never been exposed to true teaching.”

In all truth their words hurt me deeply. Outwardly I gave the impression that I couldn't care less, yet inwardly it was a different story. My reputation as an educator and theology student had been publicly discredited. That my theological understands would be challenged and possibly condemned was to be expected. But the personal insults and moreover the vehemence accompanying them, totally stunned me. For weeks I bottled inside me feelings of bitterness, frustration and anger.

It was during this time that I was notified of the death of my grandfather. I returned to Gunnedah for his funeral, physically and mentally somewhat of a wreck. At night I would break out in hives, and I developed a respiratory infection. Nevertheless, witnessing and sharing my family’s grief helped me put things into perspective, and I returned to Goulburn considerably more together than when I left.

It was also during this time that people – mainly parents of children whom I was teaching – spoke to me in relation to my letters. These encounters often took place in the most unlikeliest of places – the frozen food aisle of the supermarket, for instance. At first I was never sure if I was about to be verbally attacked or not. Yet to my relief every reaction was positive and affirming. All thanked me for writing, and spoke of how much they had gained from the sharing of my understanding and thoughts. I also received equally positive letters through the mail. Annie Zappia’s letter in particular was an immensely appreciated affirmation.

I have read with interest your letters in the Post over the past months, and the tirade of opposition which you’ve encountered also.

For a number of years I struggled with the question of whether or not I should convert to Catholicism. My upbringing was devoutly Anglican, and it was not a decision I took lightly. I finally went ahead in July 1990.

My last remaining doubts were dispelled by people like you espousing the beliefs that you do, convincing me that the Catholic Church has a future which is not buried under mountains of dogma and pointless traditions. I was and still am heartened by moves to shed all that is peripheral to the real belief system that we embrace.

You have many supporters, Mike – take heart! There will always be many who cling to what is comfortable. I admire you enormously for stating your views so publicly . . . and copping the flak!


Concerned with the effect the exchange of correspondence might be having on the school, I approached my principal (and in many respects my mentor) Mike McGowan. To my immense relief he informed me that there had been no negative feedback from parents concerning my letters. However, our parish priest Laurie Blake was being criticized by some older members of the parish and by Kevin Brannelly about my “radical” and “unorthodox” statements in the press. Accordingly, I agreed not to respond to the most recent letters of my detractors.

Interestingly, none of those approaching Fr. Blake ever attempted to contact me, though a friend and teaching colleague named Michael Baker was mistaken for me by an elderly member of the parish choir and informed in no uncertain terms of the quality of my theological thoughts: “What’s all this shit you’ve been writing in the paper?”

Dismayed by the unnecessary personal insults of Pearson and Kennedy, my friend Cathy Conroy (pictured with me at left) wrote a short but direct letter in my defense in late May. “All manner of emotional responses have been leveled at Michael Bayly – responses that speak of an anti-intellectual and highly ignorant stand.” Cathy concluded her letter with the suggestion that “perhaps Pearson and Kennedy could harness themselves to some academic work at the Catholic University and, God hoping, gain some insight and deepening of faith.”

On June 1, 1993, under the misleading title “True Church Teaching,” a letter by Fr. Kevin Brannelly was published in the Goulburn Post. Brannelly, a notorious conservative, evidently seized the opportunity provided by Cathy’s letter to denounce the progressive Australian Catholic University. “C. Conroy should not be duped by academic awards in religious studies handed out by tertiary Catholic institutions these days,” wrote Brannelly. “Deviation from authentic Catholic doctrine is endemic and widespread in these tertiary institutions.”

Brannelly condoned the outrage that Kennedy and Pearson expressed over my letters as, after all, “their statement were made in response to the theological inanities expressed in writing by a teacher in a local Catholic primary school.”

Furthermore, Brannelly indirectly questioned the wisdom of the Catholic Education Office of the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn in its employment of graduates from the institutions he condemned.

The real tragedy in our Catholic Church today is that too many individuals are lt loose to peddle their heterodox theories before unsuspecting children and youth. Catholic parents are being let down by these teachers in our schools. The many loyal Catholic teachers are swamped by the determination of the heterodox teachers, aided and abetted by their tertiary mentors, to insinuate their theories as Catholic doctrine.


Needless to say, Brannelly’s remarks caused quite a stir at the archdiocese’s Education Office in Canberra. Obviously dismayed by the public slinging match now involving both a Catholic school teacher and a Catholic priest, the office sent a representative to Goulburn to discuss the matter (separately) with both Fr. Brannelly and myself. My meeting with the representative went very well. He was empathetic to the understanding of church I had expressed in my writings and when I asked him of his opinion concerning my replying to Kennedy and Pearson, he replied that if my response was of the caliber and tact of my previous letters then he would see no problem with that. I informed Mike McGowan of my intention to respond and, although I knew he would have preferred that I didn’t, he made no attempt to stop me, for which I remain to this day grateful.

My final letter in this exchange was published on June 23, 1993. The Goulburn Post entitled it, “Down to Earth View of Catholic Church,” which I thought was very apt. The primary focus of this letter was the concept of church as the people of God. Following is the bulk of my response.

. . . The church should not be envisioned simply as a hierarchical institution. The Second Vatican Council rejected this limited understanding and rightly so. Jesus abhorred the dehumanizing tendencies that hierarchical institutions are prone to – tendencies to exclude, to judge, to alienate, and to promote elitism.

A more inclusive and thus more Christ-like understanding of church suggested by Vatican II promulgates the good news that the church is the people of God – a community of believers equal in the eyes of their Creator. We are a pilgrim people, continually growing in our understanding of ourselves and of that ultimate mystery which is God.

To equate any one particular religious structure to the Kingdom of God and accordingly suggest it is “supernatural,” is false. As Irish priest Diarmuid O’Murchu, MSC states: “Patriarchal leaderships and hierarchical structures belong to the ‘this world’ domain and not to the ambience of the Kingdom of God.”

I would like to clarify one point raised by both Mrs. Kennedy and P. Phemister. At no time have I upheld the theories of Barbara Theiring. My reference to her was to make the point that people in relationship with the risen Christ have nothing to fear from the speculations of someone like her. Our faith, our relationship with God, is not built on speculation but on our lived experiences of the risen Christ in our lives.

One correspondent dismisses such experiences as “self-centered” and lacking in truth. Yet it is human experience that is the locus of divine revelation. It is through self-giving experiences of relationship with others that we encounter Jesus and his life-giving message – a message that encompasses openness to the Spirit, equality, inclusion, and unconditional love.

It is a liberating message, yet unfortunately one which not everyone is willing to embrace. For liberation involves letting go of our black and white perceptions and of our attempts at categorizing and “controlling” God through our rigid and dogmatic rules and our catechisms of formulated answers.

It isn’t easy to say “yes” to Jesus’ challenge of liberation. But as one correspondent so eloquently put it, “God’s grace is sufficient for the task.” [These words were used by one of my detractors, with the "task" in their view being total obedience to the hierarchy.]


Mrs. Kennedy replied to my letter with one of her own in which she declared that the Catholic bishops and cardinals had been “duped” by the likes of the Australian Catholic University.

The present situation in Australia and elsewhere is the the manipulation of bishops (willingly or unwillingly) to go along with dissenting theologians rather than staying loyal to the Pope. This is indeed a painful situation for lay folk to face, but face it we must. We the loyal Catholics are not interested in “war of words,” Michael, nor do we blame your generation, so sadly led astray, for the present division in the Church. The fact remains that we must stay faithful to Jesus Christ and his Vicar, Joghn Paull II – with or without our local bishops.

We are obliged to obey our spiritual authorities in all things except sin. Institutions which digress from the truth in Faith, Morals, and Church Discipline are not genuinely Catholic and Episcopal support in no way exonerates them.


There was much in Kennedy’s letter that I could have responded to – in particular her understanding of the role of theologians and her refusal to acknowledge the important part that questioning (which she views as divisive) plays in the continual development of our faith. Yet my previous letters had to varying degrees addressed these matters, and so I did not respond.

In the following months as I prepared to leave Australia to study theology in the United States, the memory of this confrontation receded in my mind. Yet my recent experience of the Renaissance Festival, my involvement with the progressive Minneapolis parish of St. Frances Cabrini, and my theological studies at the College of St. Catherine have brought the events of last year to my attention and, in many ways, into clarifying focus.

Such remembrance and clarification have enabled me to perceive the positive role that this exchange in the Goulburn Post has played in my ongoing theological and spiritual development. Accordingly, the writing of this paper has been somewhat of a catharsis – cleansing me of residual bitterness and hurt, and revealing to me the growth that has been facilitated as a result of this experiences, one that provided both crisis and opportunity.

– Michael Bayly
October 31, 1994


Following are photos of some of the people mentioned in the above reflection paper from 1994. Most of these photos, though not all, were taken during visits I made back to Australia between 2003 and 2014.



Above: With Mike and Bernie McGowan – April 2003.



Above: My friend Cathy Conroy with her husband Gerry and their youngest son Joseph – Goulburn, 2003.



Above: My parents (at right) with Joe and Annie Zappia – Goulburn, April 2003.



Above: With Annie and Joe Zappia, their daughter, Ingrid, and Cathy Conroy – Goulburn, August 2006.

I taught Ingrid when she was in both fourth and fifth class (1990 and 1991 respectively). She now has a successful career in law in nearby Canberra.



Above: Garth, pictured at the north end of Coogee Beach, Sydney – 2003.


Left: In December 2007, Garth traveled from Australia to the U.S. to visit his girlfriend (now wife) Jenya in Baltimore.

On December 29-30, 2007, Garth made a quick 18-hour visit from Baltimore to visit me in Minnesota. For more images of this special time, click here.



Above: Garth and his wife Jenya at their Newtown home – Friday, December 10, 2010. For more images of this visit to Sydney, click here.


Right: Garth and Jenya's two beautiful daughters – Saturday, March 22, 2014.



Above: My friends Jeremiah and Garth at the former's January 8, 2011 wedding in Kingscliff, New South Wales, Australia. For more images, click here.


See also the related Wild Reed posts:
Remnants of a Past Life
More Remnants of a Past Life
20 Years Stateside
Goulburn Revisited
Goulburn Landmarks
Goulburn Reunion
What It Means to Be Catholic
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
The Treasure and the Dross
Beyond Papalism
Genuine Authority
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
It’s Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Quote of the Day

One of the things I most admired about [Marcus Borg (pictured at right)] was his willingness to say “I don’t know!” Here’s a quote: “So, is there an afterlife, and if so, what will it be like? I don’t have a clue. But I am confident that the one who has buoyed us up in life will also buoy us up through death. We die into God. What more that means, I do not know. But that is all I need to know.”

So when I [refer to Borg's] “willful ignorance”, I mean his willingness to admit he didn’t know. His willingness to embrace mystery. What I’ve learned is that this is not a cop out. In fact, I claim that insisting it is so or it is not so may actually be the cop out, the unwillingness to enter darkness, to not know, to embrace mystery.

In any profession, it takes courage to say I don’t know. But especially in today’s theological climate of certainty, it’s very risky to do so.

– David Hayward
Excerpted from "The Death of Marcus Borg and His Willful Ignorance"
The Naked Pastor
January 22, 2015


Related Off-site Links:
Marcus Borg, Leading Liberal Theologian and Historical Jesus Expert, Dies at 72 – David Gibson (Religion News Service, January 22, 2015).
Marcus Borg Didn't Just Study Scripture; He Lived Its Message – Maureen Fiedler (National Catholic Reporter, January 23, 2015).
My Friend, Marcus Borg – Barkley Thompson (God in the Midst of the City, January 21, 2015).
Will Science Prove There is a Heaven? – Christine Schenk (National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 2015).

For examples of Marcus Borg's writing at The Wild Reed, see
Palm Sunday: "A Planned Political Demonstration"
The Passion of Christ (Part 1)
The Passion of Christ (Part 9)
A Wretched Death, a Wretched Burial
Jesus Lives!
Fall Round Up – 2007

Marcus Borg's insights helped shape a homily and an op-ed of mine. They are:
The Harvest Within the Heart
A Catholic's Prayer for his Fellow Pilgrim, Benedict XVI

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Why Jesus is My Man
Within the Mystery, a Strange and Empty State of Suspension
A Return to the Spirit
The Most Sacred and Simple Mystery of All


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Five Takes on Five Dances


Recently my friend Raul and I watched Five Dances, a 2013 film written and directed by Alan Brown.

Featuring dancers Ryan Steele, Reed Luplau, Catherine Miller, Kimiye Corwin, and Luke Murphy, Five Dancers tells the story of Chip, a young, impressionable and somewhat troubled dancer from Kansas, and his first foray into the contemporary dance world of New York City.

Following is the description of Five Dances from the film's official website.

The classic tale of finding success and romance in the big city is given a contemporary, and unconventional, spin in Alan Brown's new film, Five Dances. Collaborating with internationally renowned choreographer Jonah Bokaer, writer-director Brown has taken five gifted New York dancers, and fashioned a story about Chip (Ryan Steele in his first film role), an extraordinarily talented 18 year-old recently arrived from Kansas who joins a small downtown modern dance company. In his first weeks of rehearsal, Chip is initiated into the rites of passage of a New York dancer's life, where discipline and endless hard work, camaraderie and competitiveness, the fear of not being good enough, and the joy of getting it just right, inform every minute of every day.

Shooting in and around a Soho dance studio, Brown and his longtime cinematographer Derek McKane capture the exhilaration and emotional turmoil of a small dance company, and all of Chip's poignant firsts—the forging of friendships, being chosen for the important solo, his first ever love affair—with the intimacy and immediacy of a documentary. The result, Five Dances, is Brown’s most dynamic film.





So here's my take on Five Dances: Overall, I definitely appreciated and enjoyed it – especially its beautifully filmed dance sequences.

My sole disappointment with the film is its poorly written dialogue, a shortcoming that no doubt accounts for the wooden acting of the cast, with the exception of Catherine Miller (right). She really stands out in the acting department as her performance is the most nuanced. Because of this, her character, Katie, is the one that I think viewers would relate to most; she certainly comes across as the most grounded, aware and proactive of the five characters.

At one point I thought I'd like to watch the film again with the sound turned off. That way I could skip the clunky dialogue and just focus on the sublime dancing. But then I realized I'd miss the film's beautiful score composed by Nicholas Wright.

But enough of what I think of the film. Following are four takes on Five Dances written by professional film reviewers.


The hard work and copious sweat that go into rehearsing a new dance piece is captured with visceral effect in Alan Brown's sensitive drama set mostly within the confines of a Soho dance studio. Centering on a newly arrived 18-year-old Kansas innocent who discovers love, friendship and an awareness of his physical gifts, Five Dances should well impress dance aficionados even if its skimpy narrative proves less than inspired. . . . The film is more notable for the impressively filmed and edited dance sequences which also effectively convey the interpersonal dynamics within the group.

The title refers to a series of dance sequences (choreographed by Jonah Bokaer) being rehearsed in the small studio by five dancers, including Chip (Ryan Steele), whose withdrawn, taciturn demeanor hints at an inner turmoil that is occasionally revealed in anguished phone conversations with his mother who begs him to come home.

Having arrived in the big city via a scholarship, Chip is so broke that he secretly spends his nights sleeping at the studio. That is, until a female fellow dancer (Catherine Miller) takes pity on him and invites him to spend a few days in her apartment.

Chip’s sexuality is hinted at by his not coming on to his lissome roommate. When a male dancer, Theo (Reed Luplau), not so subtly reveals his romantic interest, Chip reacts with overt hostility. But eventually his barriers are broken down and the two embark on a torrid affair.



That’s about it in terms of the film’s storyline, except for such minor subplots as a married female dancer’s affair with the dance company’s captain coming to light in an ugly exchange. The film is more notable for the impressively filmed and edited dance sequences which also effectively convey the interpersonal dynamics within the group.

Despite such attempts to provide depth to Chip as having him occasionally demonstrate his comical gift for ventriloquism, the character largely remains a cipher. The feeling is only accentuated by Steele’s repressive performance which is not nearly as impressive as his athletic dancing. But then again, that’s appropriate for this film in which the characters express themselves far more vividly with their bodies than words.

Frank Scheck
The Hollywood Reporter
October 7, 2013



An extraordinary dancer, Ryan Steele, dominates Five Dances, the camera pivoting on his every sinewy stretch and turn. Almost all of writer-director Alan Brown's latest feature transpires in a Soho studio where a small troupe is rehearsing five pieces choreographed by Jonah Bokaer. But rather than adapting the pieces to conform to his paper-thin narrative, Brown explores the tensions and contortions of dancers expressing fresh emotion through a pre-existing art form. The result avoids docu-style randomness while furthering only the most rudimentary story and character points, allowing the dance to speak largely, and magnificently, for itself.

Much as they did with Shakespeare’s text in their similarly gay-themed Private Romeo, Brown and longtime cinematographer Derek McKane trace complex configurations of confusion and desire in a densely resistant art medium. Steele is cast as Chip, a kid fresh from Kansas whose dancing talent is as immediately obvious as his naivete. Broke, he secretly sleeps in the studio until invited by fellow dancer Katie (Catherine Miller) to crash at her place. Tearfully threatening phone calls from his gin-soaked mother, whom he must constantly placate lest she follow him to New York, represent bridges yet unburned.

To a great extent, Chip’s baby-chick quality encourages the other dancers’ protectiveness and mitigates the jealousy they might otherwise have felt toward his superior talent, which quickly earns him an important solo. When Theo (Reed Luplau), another dancer in the two-woman/three-man troupe, makes a sexual overture, Chip instinctively shies away, angry and defensive, only to come back, apologize and melt in his arms. Unsurprisingly, the sex scenes are shot with the grace and complexity of a choreographed dance, the movements of the intertwined bodies confined to a much smaller space, the leaps, lifts and twists internalized.

The five dances of the title are surprisingly short. Oddly, Brown makes little distinction between parts and wholes, and the broken-down individual moves prove just as compelling as their final configuration in the choreography, sometimes even more so. The sensual movement of bodies through space creates a visual language whose infinite variations seduce and fascinate over the course of the film’s numerous rehearsals. The clean, open spaces of the loft-cum-dance studio lend the entire film a clarity echoed in all aspects of the staging and production, from the costumes to the amiable camaraderie of the troupe.

Ronnie Scheib
Variety
November 12, 2013



Five people rehearsing in an otherwise vacant dance studio: That pitch may not appeal to everyone, but fans of the movement arts and ensemble acting will appreciate the possibilities.

Yet few of those possibilities are explored with any depth in Five Dances, a promising though static new film that never leaves its taciturn shadows for a single emotionally gripping moment.

Ryan Steele plays a newcomer joining the cast of a dance work choreographed by Anthony (Luke Murphy) in the fiction, Jonah Bokaer in reality. The dances are arresting, moving from a cold angularity to more fluid partnering; they are captured by an unobtrusive camera and are easily the film’s strength.

Mr. Steele has a truthful restraint as the quiet new guy, Chip, but his story is never dynamic, and his fellow players are either too tangential or too nakedly used as props. (Moments of the film approach soft-core pornography.) The few narrative turns feel contrived, and the cast is never allowed to jell like a company.

Five Dances, written and directed by Alan Brown, does provide unusually luxurious quiet, punctuated by squeaks and thuds of feet on the floor in the dancers’ stop-and-start rehearsals. There’s an interesting vibe there, but it’s not enough to save what seems like a failed experiment.

David DeWitt
New York Times
October 3, 2013



Five Dances might be the least talky movie I've seen in months — but it's plenty expressive. What it says, it says silently, or at least non-verbally, in the music-and-movement language of Jonah Bokaer's haunting choreography, which speaks of solitary strivings and the brief, passionate connections that punctuate them.

In fact, the quiet appeal of Alan Brown's sensually photographed film (Derek McKane is the cinematographer) is in the way it extends that vocabulary into its non-dance scenes; it's a gentle, if slight, narrative full of fraught looks and knowing silences — which, frankly, might grow tiresome in another context — that communicate mood and character as clearly and lyrically as a fine dance piece.

. . . This isn't a breakthrough film for anyone, I don't think. What it is: a lovingly shot valentine to work and body and art, and a generous, ultimately happy little story of a lost boy finding a community and a kindred soul.

Trey Graham
NPR
October 4, 2013





Related Off-site Link:
Making Love: An Interview with Gay Filmmaker Alan Brown – Gary M. Kramer (Gay City News, October 2, 2013).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Dancer and the Dance
The Art of Dancing as the Supreme Symbol of the Spiritual Life
The Premise of All Forms of Dance
The Soul of a Dancer
The Church and Dance
The Naked Truth . . . in Dance and in Life
Carlos Acosta Recalls the "Clarion Call" of His Vocation in Dance
Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage
Gay Men and Modern Dance


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Quote (and Question) of the Day

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Pope Francis confounds me. How can a man who is so eloquent and obviously heartfelt when he talks about global poverty and injustice and income inequality start spouting such a collection of reheated papal clichés and utter nonsense when he starts talking about women and sex?

– Patricia Miller
Excerpted from "Pope Francis, Breeding Bunnies and Ideological Colonization"
Religion Dispatches
January 20, 2015


Related Off-site Links:
Pope Amuses and Insults with Remark on Parenting – Elisabetta Povoledo (The New York Times, January 20, 2015).
Pope: Catholics Need Not Breed Like ‘Rabbits’ – Really? – Jerry Slevin (Christian Catholicism, January 21, 2015).
The Catholic Church's Complicity in Glyzelle Palomar's Suffering – Jamie Manson (National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2015).
Pope Francis Might Not Be As Awesome As We Thought He Was – Asher Bayot (Inquisitr.com, January 18, 2015).
Pope Francis Calls Marriage Equality "Ideological Colonization" to Destroy Family – Ross Murray (GLAAD, January 16, 2015).
What to Make of Pope Francis’ Latest Comments on Marriage? – Francis DeBernardo (Bondings 2.0, January 17, 2015).
Pope Francis Slams Capitalism and Those Who Criticize Him For It in His Best Interview Yet – Ryan Denson (Addicting Info, January 11, 2015).
The Trouble with Francis: Three Things That Worry Me – Mary E. Hunt (Religion Dispatches, January 6, 2014).
Pope Francis’ Stinging Critique of Capitalism – James Downie (The Washington Post, November 26, 2013).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
How the Pope's Recent Remarks Highlight a Major Discrepancy in Church Teaching
On the Issue of Contraception, the Catholic Clerical Caste Does Not Speak for "the Church," Let Alone "Religion"
Robert McClory on Humanae Vitae
One Couple's "Evolving View of Natural Family Planning"
Quote of the Day – November 29, 2010
Stop in the Name of Discriminatory Ideology
Italian Cardinal Calls for a “New Vision” for Sexuality
Quote of the Day – January 14, 2012


Monday, January 19, 2015

For 2015, Three "Generous Promises"


Yeah, I know . . . I really should take down my Christmas tree.

But with this cold wintry weather we're experiencing, my colorful and glittery little tree definitely adds a lovely warmth to my home, don't you think? So maybe I'll wait another couple of days or so.

Actually, my friend Kathleen said it's quite okay to wait a bit longer before taking down my tree. She reminded me that in some older Catholic Christian traditions, Christmas lasted until February 2. This date marks the end of the 40 day-long "Christmastide," which corresponds to the 40 days of Lent. As I'm sure many of you reading this would know, on February 2 the Church celebrates the day that Mary entered the temple when her days of "purification" (as defined by the patriarchal Mosaic law) were fulfilled after giving birth. It's also the occasion when Simeon and Anna made their well-known pronouncements about Mary and Jesus. The day is known as "Candle-mas" because of Simeon's prophecy that Jesus would be a light for all people.


Stirring the fire

Speaking of light, on Saturday, January 3 I participated in "Stirring the Fire," the annual spiritual retreat for and by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and Consociates – St. Paul Province. As I think most of you know, I'm a consociate member of this particular Catholic order.

This year's day of reflection focused on "inner stability and outer mobility," and although these particular words are not ones I would chose to use, what they signify is nevertheless very meaningful and important to me. That's because in terms of both the physical and spiritual dimensions of life, "inner stability" is all about balance, groundedness, harmony, and a strength of core cultivated and maintained by mindfulness and a listening heart. All these things require time, dedication, and discipline. "Outward mobility," as explained at the retreat, speaks to me of journeying and of outreach to and compassionate engagement with others. It involves openness, flexibility, and a prayerfully discerned sense of focus and direction.

At one point during the retreat, it was noted that inner stability and outer mobility are the defining characteristics of a mystic, of one desiring transformation via union with the Sacred Presence that dwells both within and beyond us. I appreciate and resonate with this insight.


An intentional and mindful practice

Another important component of the Stirring the Fire retreat was its focus on the Examen or examination of conscience, the ancient practice of thoughtfully reviewing our actions, thoughts, and experiences of the day. It's a practice that can help us in our relationship with God through its invitation to discern the things we are grateful for, the things that feed and replenish us; the things that drain us; the things we want to change; and the things we need to work on.

One of the retreat facilitators reminded us that the way to start the Examen is by visualizing and feeling oneself embraced by God's unconditional love. We then begin reflecting upon our day, identifying when and where we felt connected to others and God, and when we felt disconnected. Such mindful reflection invites us to name our struggles and fears; the resources we possess and/or have access to that can guide, strengthen and calm us; our gifts; and the various pathways that are open to us. The Examen also provides us with an opportunity to discern the value of our various commitments. Over time, we can also begin to discern patterns in our lives and our spiritual journey. In short, the Examen helps us be in communion with the totality of our being – our strengths and weaknesses; our gains and losses; our hopes and dreams; and our frustrations and disappointments. Through such an intentional and mindful practice we place ourselves in communion with our deepest self and thus the Sacred Presence within us.

I found the retreat's focus on the Examen very helpful. It confirmed for me something I've known for quite some time: I lack discipline in a number areas of my life, including my inner spiritual life, and, perhaps no doubt related to this, I lack direction in my outer life in the world.

In some ways, a good visual representation of this lack of discipline and direction is the following photo of my room, taken at around the time of my participation in the Stirring the Fire retreat. As you can see, it's a mess!



True, I was working at the time on the first installment in my series of posts documenting my twenty years in the U.S., and so I had been shifting and sorting through several boxes of old files, photos, and papers.

The need for discipline in my spiritual practices and clarity and direction in my vocation/career has been somewhat of a recurring theme in my life throughout the past four years or so. (See for instance, here, here, here, here and here.) Indeed, it would probably be more accurate to say that rather than discerning this need, I was reminded of it at the retreat on January 3. For when we were invited to write down what it was we hoped for in 2015 in relation to the theme of inner stability and outer mobility, I wrote: Spiralling forward with focus, direction, and energy.

I very consciously chose spiralling as I think it describes well the nature and trajectory of my spiritual journey. There's often something circular, cyclical about it; yet I nevertheless discern and experience progress, a forward momentum.

I also appreciate how spiralling brings to mind the graceful and focused movements of the whirling dervishes of the Sufi tradition, a tradition with which I deeply resonate.



Three generous promises

We were also asked on January 3 to generate "generous promises" for ourselves, promises that reflect God's generous love and which would help and guide us in embodying the hopes we have for 2015. I came up with three:

• To stay open and responsive to the invitations all around me to spiral forward with focus, direction, and energy.

• To create sacred time and space to experience the Divine Presence as together we spiral forward with focus, direction, and energy.

• To trust that even when I feel it's not happening, I am in some beautiful and mysterious way spiralling forward with focus, direction, and energy.


Since the Stirring the Fire retreat I've slowly been putting into practice the many wise and helpful insights shared and the "generous promises" I made to myself. I've started doing an Examen every night, in unison with the practice of keeping a journal. Tomorrow evening a commence a yoga class, something I've been wanting to do for some time. Oh, and I've started getting my room back in order . . .



If you have decided to make the new year a time of renewal and recommitment in some way, then my thoughts and prayers of loving support are with you. May we all, in our own unique and beautiful ways, spiral forward in making our lives, relationships, communities, and the world an ever-radiant manifestation of God's transforming spirit of justice and compassion.


See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
All 'Round Me Burdens Seem to Fall
A Guidepost on the Journey
Threshold Musings
Seeking Balance
May Balance and Harmony Be Your Aim
Memet Bilgin and the Art of Restoring Balance
Clarity, Hope and Courage
Prayer and the Experience of God in an Ever-Unfolding Universe
Karl Rahner on the Need for Prayer
There Must Be Balance
"Then I Shall Leap Into Love"
As the Last Walls Dissolve . . . Everything is Possible
Prayer of the Week – November 24, 2014
A Discerning Balance Between Holiness and Wholeness: A Hallmark of the Resurrected Life
Sufism: The Way of Love, a Tradition of Enlightenment, and an Antidote to Fanaticism
Active Waiting: A Radical Attitude Toward Life
In the Garden of Spirituality – Parker Palmer
The Most Sacred and Simple Mystery of All
The Source is Within You


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Quote of the Day

Michael Sam, the first professional football player to come out as gay, proposed to his partner at the Vatican last week just as Pope Francis made his harshest comments against same-sex marriage since he became the pontiff.

. . . Sam’s engagement announcement comes as Pope Francis also claimed there is an “ideological colonization” of the family occurring, a statement . . . more troubling than his criticism of marriage equality. Sam’s latest act is not a ‘colonization,’ but extends a liberating witness to the Vatican of the goodness and holiness present in the relationships of many LGBT people. In bringing the love of a same-sex couple to the heart of institutional Catholicism, Sam and Cammissano are not colonizers . . . but bridge builders.

. . . In being open and authentic, Michael Sam adds his courageous voice to those calling the Catholic Church to greater welcome and acceptance of LGBT people. These include Irish Fr. Martin Dolan who came out to his parish during Mass and Belgian Bishop Johan Bonny who called on the church to formally recognize same-sex couples.

As Bondings 2.0 wrote previously, courage breeds courage. Perhaps Sam and Cammissano will inspire more couples to propose at the Vatican in 2015 – or at the very least, to let church officials know of their love and commitment.

– Bob Shine
Excerpted from "Gay Football Player Michael Sam
Proposes Marriage Atop Vatican
"
Bondings 2.0
January 18, 2015


See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Marriage: "Part of What is Best in Human Nature"
Quote of the Day – December 30, 2014
Rediscovering What Has Been Written on Our Hearts from the Very Beginning
Quote of the Day – May 31, 2014
Catholic Church Can Overcome Fear of LGBT People


Monday, January 12, 2015

"A Token of Wildness and Intractability"


As anyone remotely familiar with this blog would know, I'm rather an admirer of the Poldark series of novels by Winston Graham, and have been since my teenage years.

There's still no word yet of when the BBC's new adaptation of the twelve Poldark novels will be screened on PBS here in the U.S. I'm thinking it will probably be shortly after the series premieres in the U.K. in March. (1/14/15 Update: Poldark will air on PBS Masterpiece in the U.S. in June 2015. The first episode will be shown on Sunday, June 14 in the prime slot of 9 p.m. To view the trailer, click here.)



Above: The principal cast members of Poldark (2015). From left: Jack Farthing as George Warleggan, Kyle Soller as Francis Poldark, Heida Reed as Elizabeth Chenoweth, Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza Carne, Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark, Ruby Bentall as Verity Poldark, and Caroline Blakiston as Agatha Poldark.


The new adaptation stars Aidan Turner as the series protagonist, Ross Poldark. A member of the landed gentry of eighteenth-century Cornwall, Ross Poldark often finds himself at odds with his own class over the social and economic status quo which impoverishes local miners and many others of the working class. In the first novel of the series, which Graham originally intended to call The Renegade before deciding on Ross Poldark, the young Captain Poldark is introduced as a battle-scarred veteran of the American War who, upon returning in 1783 to his derelict family estate on the windswept coast of Cornwall, discovers his widowed father dead and the woman he loves engaged to his cousin. Bitterly disappointed and close to financial ruin, Ross nevertheless vows to make the most of what he has.

The first TV adaptation of the Poldark novels was originally broadcast in the mid 1970s. It was hugely popular and starred Robin Ellis (left) as Ross Poldark, a distinguishing physical characteristic of whom is a prominent scar on one side of his face. Recently, Debbie Horsfield, the screenwriter of the new adaptation, explained to The Power of Poldark facebook group why the facial scars of Robin Ellis and Aidan Turner are on opposite sides.

In Ross Poldark, the first time the scar is mentioned, there is no indication of which side of the face it is on. The description just says "with a scar on his cheek". However, in Jeremy Poldark there is a more detailed description as follows: "The scar was more than half-hidden by the long side hair, but all the same the tail of it down his cheek was a token of wildness and intractability". Again there is no mention of which side the scar is on but the suggestion is that it is not across the cheek but down it and close to the side-hairline. The actual look and creation of the scar is designed by our Makeup Designer Jacqui Fowler who is taking as her reference the source material rather than the previous adaptation.


I might add that in Warleggan, the following is said about Ross Poldark's scar:

His scar was very noticeable this morning. Often it was as if that chance sword-thrust in Pennsylvania remained with him and had become a symbol of the nonconformity of his nature, the unabiding renegade.


Yes, that Ross Poldark! He's definitely a hero of mine, and I'm so looking forward to seeing this complex renegade-of-a-hero (or is that a hero-of-a-renegade?) brought to life for a whole new generation through the BBC's new series.




See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Return of the (Cornish) Native
Passion, Tide and Time
Time and Remembrance in the Poldark Novels
"Hers Would Be the Perpetual Ache of Loss and Loneliness"


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Something to Think About . . .

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Related Off-site Links:
Charlie Hebdo: The Danger of Polarised Debate – Gary Younge (The Guardian, January 11, 2015).
Charlie Hebdo: We Must Grieve the Dead Without Misconstruing Racism as Democratic Ideal – Christen A. Smith (Truthout, January 9, 2015).
Mourning the Parisian Journalists Yet Noticing the Hypocrisy – Rabbi Michael Lerner (The Huffington Post, January 9, 2015).
Why I Am Not Charlie – Scott Long (A Paper Bird, January 9, 2015).
I Will Grieve. I Will Laugh. But I Am Not Charlie – Josh Healey (Common Dreams, January 13, 2015).
Lassana Bathily, Muslim Employee at Kosher Market, Saved Several People During Paris Hostage Situation – Braden Goyette (The Huffington Post, January 10, 2015).
Ahmed Merabet's Eulogy is the Most Important Thing You'll Read on Charlie Hebdo – Max Fisher (Vox, January 11, 2015).
Stop Saying "Islamic Terrorist"The Boeskool (January 10, 2015).
Some European Bloodbaths Are More Interesting Than Others – Jim Naureckas (FAIR, January 11, 2015).
Unmournable Bodies – Teju Cole (The New Yorker, January 9, 2015).
How Muslim Scholars View Paris Attack – Shari`ah Staff (OnIslam.net, January 8, 2015).
Leading Muslim Scholar Tariq Ramadan: Attack on Paris Magazine "a Pure Betrayal of Our Religion"Democracy Now! (January 7, 2015).
The Lesson of Charlie Hebdo: The World Only Cares If You Kill White People – Margaret Kimberley (Alternet, January 15, 2015).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Doris Lessing on the Challenge to Go Beyond Ideological Slogans
Sufism: A Tradition of Enlightenment, the Way of Love, and an Antidote to Fanaticism
What Muslims Want

Image: Khalid Albaih, a Sudanese artist. (For more cartoons from artists responding to the Charlie Hebdo shooting, click here.)