Faith and Film (prt. 2): The Mission

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By Joe LaGuardia

When I was in high school, my sister Gina and brother-in-law Frank invited me to join them for dinner in Manhattan with one of Frank’s clients. Frank was a personal trainer and this client had meant a great deal to him; the client, a Jesuit priest whose name I’ve since lost, had become a sort of mentor and father figure to Frank.

I don’t remember the fine details of our conversation over dinner, but I do remember enjoying the priest’s explanation of Catholicism and the Society of Brothers, commonly known as the Jesuits. I, an evangelical mostly reared in the south, had certain assumptions of Catholics that this particular Brother sought to correct. He did a good job, and I’ve respected Catholics in general and Jesuits specifically ever since.

One other thing I remember clearly is that the priest recommended I watch the 1986 movie The Mission, staring Robert DeNiro. He thought it might be a good historical primer on the work that Jesuits had accomplished over the centuries.

In The Mission DeNiro, a Portuguese conquistador and slave trader, warred with the Jesuits and their work in converting South American Guarani natives. DeNiro ends up killing his brother over a love triangle and runs away to the Jesuits. Father Gabriel, played by Jeremy Irons, takes him in as a sort of disciple.

Much of the movie focuses on DeNiro’s transformation from warrior to wounded servant. The journey he takes is one of redemption, and–as any good epic goes–a discovery that his biggest enemy is himself. God forgives him, but he cannot receive it because he cannot forgive himself.

In one of the most powerful scenes of the movie, DeNiro made a long climb up a waterfall to reach the mission with a band of priests and natives. He is hauling his armor in a sort of net knapsack, and after climbing all the way he falls in exhaustion and pain. A native grabs a knife and cuts the chords to the knapsack, and the armor plummets down the mountain. DeNiro finds liberation. His past, now behind him, no longer enslaves him. The natives accept him as one of their own.

For years and years, I have spent much of my Christian walk trying to figure out what baggage I keep bringing along with me in my ascension towards Christ. What is it that I am holding onto? Where do I need the fresh waters of the mountains and the salty tears of my soul to bless and baptize me? Where do I need Christ’s liberation and permission to forgive myself for all of the stupid things I’ve done and continue to do?

These questions haunt me, and the images of The Mission still ring in my imagination. Its amazing how one Manhattan dinner with a stranger who happened to be a priest made such an impact on my life. I can see–as I realized back then–why this man was so important to Frank’s life.

The last I checked, Frank lost contact with the priest, so I am unable to contact the priest and tell him how much that conversation meant to me. I am unable to convey (on this side of heaven, at least) how his wisdom, grace, and movie recommendation changed my life.

I was a born again evangelical when I met with Gina, Frank, and that priest over dinner so long ago; and I feel I was born again a second time after I walked away from that dinner.

The Outdoors is for the Birds

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By Joe LaGuardia

St. Francis of Assisi is not my patron saint. You remember St. Francis? He was the 13th-century monk who preached to all of nature, including animals. He spoke of creation in moving prayers and poetry. He celebrated God’s care over all creation, including Brother Sun and Sister Moon. If you’re interested, you can purchase a statue of St. Francis at your local hardware or garden store.

But St. Francis is not for me. Don’t get me wrong, I like to garden. I spent several weekends this month working on my garden. When we have work days at church, the mulching is always my job.

For all that enjoyment, however, I have yet to make gardening the spiritual exercise it is for many Christians who echo the sentiments of St. Francis. When I weed, I curse the ground of my toil–namely, calling the weeds, “Idiots!” for being there in the first place. Some of the weeds look beautiful, actually, but they are stupid because they keep growing. And why do weeds grow so much better and faster than the things that I want to grow in the garden?

Today, when I was laying mulch in my front yard, there was a brief rain shower. This is what happens in a typical coastal Florida shower: It is a beautiful day that turns more beautiful when it becomes slightly overcast. A welcome breeze comes through for a few minutes, ushering in the clouds. It rains for a few minutes and stops as abruptly as it began.

Then things change. The beauty ceases, the breeze stops, and it turns deathly humid. You are drenched not from the rain, but from heavy moisture in the air. Your shirt clings to your body, and the mulch-stains on your shorts become mud stains, and you can’t wear your glasses because they become foggy, and you can’t wipe your brow because your arms are like slip-n-slides, and although the sun still isn’t out, the heat rises from concrete and from the damp, and you get a taste of what hell is like.

It is then that I realized I was not a Franciscan at heart. I do better with my nose in a book while in air-conditioned housing then in the beauty of nature that turns bleak and cranky.

St. Francis can guard other gardens, thank you very much. Instead, I’ll stick with a saint I fell in love with long ago, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius popularized using one’s imagination while reading the Bible, and his daily “spiritual exercises” include reflecting on the day as a contemplative form of prayer– a prayer best served indoors.

I had an email bearing Ignatius’s name at one point in my life, when Hotmail was all the rage. And although he is Spanish and I am Italian like St. Francis, I still think that the Jesuits have done more for the Catholic Church than most monastic movements in recent days.

So let St. Francis preach to the birds. I’d rather spend time asking where I find myself in scripture and reflecting on the face of Christ during long periods of solitude and silence. At least I won’t smell like a big, wet sock and have to bath seven times a day.

The weeds will have to contend with another nemesis for now, but at least they won’t face the verbal abuse that I hurl in their direction. Stupid weeds.

A Reading Life (prt. 15): Memiors Among Us

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

In the afterword of my recent book, A Whispering Call, I outline the waning market for first-person narration.  Jonathon Franzen, guest editor for the Best American Essays anthology of 2016, states that we stand in the Golden Age of memoirs; while Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker lamented that the “personal essay boom” has come to an end.

Regardless of various naysayers, I personally love memoirs.  Memoirs record the inner journey of the soul while affirming the resiliency of lives who carry the burdens born of both tragedy and comedy.

I just finished reading, God Underneath, by Catholic priest, Edward Beck.  In his own afterword, he wrote that his memoir aims to help people see the priesthood differently, past the clergy collar.  He wanted to humanize his position while helping his readers realize that God is in all the details of life.

Only the memoir genre allowed him to tell his story and express all of the settings in which a priest may find himself.

Perhaps I like memoirs because I have spent decades reflecting on my own journey of faith and vocation.  Hearing God’s call, fashioning a community that knows how to discern God’s call, and responding to God’s call have to be the best parts of my ministry.  Heck, vocation is the undercurrent of my newest book and of this blog series!

Memoir makes for great sermons too.  In reading Beck, I was reminded of my own struggle with pastoral presence and image, and how I have incorporated that into my preaching.  I am familiar with the feeling he expresses about needing to lose the frock to deepen friendships.  I resonated with his efforts of encouraging others to relate to him as a normal individual, pushing towards a more “confessional” style that connects with congregations.

I agreed that when people put us ministers on pedestals, it is easier for that kind of idol to fall and break into a million pieces like Dagon before the ark of the covenant.  Memoir can turn tragic real fast when people place unrealistic expectations upon you.

And memoirs remind us that we are all made in God’s image and called to be priests in one form or fashion.  My Baptist tradition specifically grants us the mantle of the priesthood of believers.  Dismantling unrealistic images of the ministry does not lessen how people see me, but lifts people up and persuades them to seize God’s destiny in their lives.

Recently, one of our youngest children at church asked whether our music minister was Jesus.  One Sunday, when the minister came off of the stage during worship, the little girl reached over to my wife, bright-eyed, and whispered, “That’s Jesus!”

My wife tried to tell her who Jesus is (and who he isn’t), but it got a great belly laugh out of all of us.  My music minister now has a lot to live up to!

Edward Beck mentions that people ask him about his calling: “When did you receive your call, Father?” And every time, he responds, “I am still receiving it!”  God’s call continually provides opportunities for us to bear witness to Christ’s love.

Are we willing to move beyond our own self-image and see ourselves through Christ’s eyes, then see others as Christ sees them?  What memoir might we write, and how does God show up in it?