Waiting for the question: The Force awakens at Grandma’s house

It’s been a nostalgic turning of the year. A first holiday visit back to my California hometown after a move to Washington was an important time to reconnect with family there, especially my aging grandmother who’s recovering in assisted living from a nasty fall. Working out of my father’s office for the week, I spent my lunch hours with her, and then went home to her house at night with my wife and two sons.

I made so many happy childhood memories in and around that house, it is often appears as a place of power in my dreams. It’s hard to watch the home age and the land change around it, wondering what the world is like when it is no longer here. I spent every Friday night out there with Grandma after Grandpa died, from elementary school to the time I left for college. So it was a bittersweet experience to put my own kids to bed in the tiny side bedroom that still has a sticker with my name on the door at kindergarten height. This is where Grandma and Grandpa met Santa Claus in 1974, when they slept in the downstairs family room for Grandpa’s last Christmas. Surrounded now by light industrial and condo developments, when it was built, the house was the only home on the Easternmost edge of a California railroad town on the very fringe of the San Francisco Bay Area. In the Depression through World War II, hobos used to chalk the fence posts down by the tracks to get a free meal from my grandparents after hopping off the boxcars entering town.


I remember standing on the fence watching the sun set and the trains going by, feeling very much like a seven-year old Luke Skywalker. That made it all the more poignant to see the new Star Wars movie with my father and two brothers one night down on First Street, where Dad took me to see the first one back in 1977.

If you’re the one person who still hasn’t seen it yet, there may be spoilers here. But hey, what can I say? I waited 32 years to learn what happened next. A spoiler or two won’t hurt anyone. Suffice it to say, as a first-generation fan, it was magical to see my original cast onscreen again. It has been criticized for being a mashup of the most effective elements of prior installments: masked villains, tiny mentors, deserts, snow, and forests. Even George Lucas has called it a “retro movie.” It is fun and flawed, with more emotional maturity than the first. A lot of that poignancy comes from the  original cast of characters who have aged in story-time the same amount we have lived in the world off screen. Seeing it when and where I did, with constant reminders of the passing of time, I realized there’s a lot more going on in it than selling popcorn and introducing a fresh young cast. Where the original Star Wars trilogy was about growing up, the new one is about getting old, and that’s very much by design.

Consider the source material:

An immature farm boy learns his deceased father was in fact a knight, inherits his blade and begins his own quest to maturity and knighthood…

Chris Drumm by Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY)

It’s a common enough theme, the classic Arthurian legend. It inspired Wagner and T. S. Eliot long before it inspired Lucas. In the Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell famously pointed out that Parzival was the jumping off point for Luke’s hero quest. Like Parzival, in the original trilogy, Luke meets teachers with a secret connection to his family, gets lost along the way, and ultimately becomes the knight his father’s heritage destined him to be. All well and good.

Thanks to Campbell, it started a generation of New Age obsession with the Hero’s Journey and following our bliss. Somehow, in all the excitement, we never noticed he only told the young man’s part of the story. The whole Baby Boom culture and its Gen X progeny was so entranced by the “Hero’s Journey” come to life, somehow we never noticed that Lucas left out the most important part. As Parzival, Luke never reached Act Two. We see him initiated, but to what end? The myth of Parzival makes that clear, but Star Wars never did. Until now.

On his quest to become a knight, Parzival is a bit of a buffoon. Dressing in home-made, ill-fitting armor emulating his father, he stumbles through adventures without knowing the first thing about chivalry, honor, courtly love, or compassion. Eventually, he wanders to a wasted land, ruled by a wounded king he finds fishing in the murky waters surrounding his ruined kingdom. It is the Fisher King, and his castle is none other than the Grail Castle. Inside, Parzival witnesses a silent procession involving a bleeding lance that wounded the king, and the Holy Grail. But naive Parzival makes the mistake of silence. He fails to ask a question the king and all his court have been waiting for, a question that would heal the king and restore the kingdom. Consequently, the castle vanishes. Parzival awakes to find himself alone in the moors and spends the rest of the tale trying to make his way back to ask the healing question.

Eventually he meets an old hermit priest, who instructs him in the way of true knighthood and of his family legacy. The Fisher King is Parzival’s uncle, charged with safeguarding the Holy Grail. Because of his wound, he is unable to father children to pass on its legacy. Only the Grail Knight can set things right by asking the healing question. Through the path of suffering, Parzival learns compassion. The way to the Grail Castle reopens to him, and when next he sees the Grail ceremony, he is ready. He asks the healing question, unlocks the power of the Grail, heals his uncle, restores the kingdom, and becomes the new Grail King. The End.

I propose that the writers are building the new Star Wars trilogy on the same Parzival foundation George Lucas laid for the first one. All the elements setting up the missing Act Two are there. Consider the deus ex machina in the final scenes, where Artoo just happens to contain the rest of the map leading back to the vanished Luke Skywalker. Notice, though, it’s a question (from BB-8) that unlocks it. And where does that question lead? To the ocean world of Ahch-To, the site of the first Jedi Temple. There an aging, wounded Luke Skywalker sits among its ruins, surrounded by endless gray seas.

The Jedi Temple at Ahch-To – UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ireland’s Skellig Michael island monastery. Photo by Don Richards Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY)

As in Parzival, a question opens the way to the wasteland of the Grail castle. Here, the Parzival of the old trilogy has become the Fisher King of the new, waiting for a healing question that will allow him to restore the Kingdom (the destroyed Jedi Order) and pass its custody on to a new generation (Rey?). The new characters are all vibrant and exciting, but it is the old man’s quest that drives the arc out of this movie into the following films. Star Wars has finally gotten around to the rest of the story. If it catches on, perhaps that’s good news for a youth-obsessed culture, all fitted out for the Hero’s Journey these past three decades, but without a clue where to go next.

Just what is that healing question? It changes with the storyteller. In the earliest version by Chretien de Troyes, it’s “Who is served by the Grail?” In the expanded version from Wolfram von Eschenbach, it’s “Sir, why do you suffer so?” Either way, the question shows compassion, the key to becoming the Grail Knight. And if you replace “The Grail” with “The Force,” then you’ve got the likely master arc running through the new trilogy.

Q: Sir / Master, why do you suffer so? Who does the Grail / Force serve?

A: I was wounded by the lance / lightsaber, and only it can heal me. The Grail / Force serves the Grail King / Jedi Master.

Episode VII ends with Luke, a Jedi Master looking every bit the Fisher King, confronting the mysterious Rey handing him his father’s lost lightsaber, sharing a long, meaningful stare with no question asked. This is Parzival’s ceremony of the Grail Castle filmed on IMAX, and it leaves us with questions of our own.

Is Rey the Grail Knight he is waiting for? Has the Force awakened in her to restore Luke’s ruined kingdom, the Jedi Order? It’s implied she may be one of his old students, hidden away where she’d find the Milennium Falcon to carry her back to him when the time was right. In that theory, Luke trusted the future of his ruined kingdom to the Force to guide her home, knowing it would lead her to the map, the ship, and the blade until she was ready to find the castle. As a failsafe, he left the missing part of the map hidden safely within the memory of his R2 unit, who would know when to retrieve it once hearing the question asked. As in Parzival, only the true Knight could ask, because only the true knight had developed the compassion to do so.

Or, like Master Yoda said a lifetime ago, could there be another? Star Wars never steers too close to the original myth. It keeps the landmarks, but plots a different course between them. Writer Mike Klimo’s amazing Star Wars Ring Theory explores the very deliberate chiastic structure running through the first six films, how they fulfill leitmotifs in character, setting, and scene composition, while introducing variations around recurring themes. If the new creators are doing something similar, then Rey may be a bit of a red herring, her question left unspoken precisely to set up and thwart audience expectations.

Remember, the true Jedi / Grail Knight learns to walk the warrior’s path with compassion. They balance the dark and the light. On his way to becoming a true knight, Parzival blunders rashly through the story, trying and failing to be his father, in armor that’s too big. He only becomes a knight when he learns true chivalry and compassion from the priest and returns to the Grail Castle to undo the damage of his past failure. True, Rey is a bit of a cipher so far, but she doesn’t act rashly, hiding in a helmet with daddy issues. That sounds like another character entirely: Kylo Ren.

But he’s the villain, you say. Well, so far. We’ve seen role reversals before in Star Wars. Anakin was supposed to be the chosen one, but he became Darth Vader along the way. If writers have a chiastic structure like Klimo’s in mind, then what more appropriate reversal than having the seeming villain turn out to be the new Grail Knight in the making: a temperamental, Dark Side wannabe, obsessed with his family legacy and hiding in a helmet… but with an undeniable attraction to the light. Villain? Now, perhaps. But in good Star Wars fashion, I sense a hero in the making. I’m calling it now: Kylo Ren is the Grail Knight and hero of this trilogy. Of all the characters, he’s the one with the most potential for growth and the biggest healing if he opens himself to compassion.

Parzival confronting his half-brother Feirefiz… or Kylo Ren facing an undiscovered sibling (Rey? Finn?)

If so, there’s another interesting element: before his return to the Grail Castle to heal the kingdom, Parzival confronts a knight who turns out to be his half-brother. Evenly matched, they fight to a draw rather than to the death and discover their hidden connection. They overcome their crusader era enmity and swear to serve the Grail together. The secret sibling in an important Star Wars trope too, thanks to Luke and Leia. If it plays out here again as the Grail Kingdom motif hints, there’s an undiscovered family connection somewhere down the line. The mystery of Rey’s absent family certainly leaves room for discoveries, but don’t forget Finn’s is a blank slate too. In fact, the Grail Knight motif makes him even more interesting in retrospect as the anti-Kylo Ren: a knight without a family, driven to get out of his white armor entirely. Regardless of whether the Grail Knight who can restore the Jedi is Rey, Kylo, or even Finn, it seems likely two will confront each other again as enemies but unite as family somehow before the Grail Kingdom / Jedi can be restored.

Back to Grandma’s house. I wish we had the Grail here, but all we have is compassion: the ability to sit with her, help her eat, and talk with her in disjointed conversations in and out of pain meds. As the week drew to a close, although I feared it may be my last stay in her house, I left feeling very much restored. In some small way I had introduced my own next generation to her legacy, sharing the surroundings and stories I loved with them, while spending important healing time with her.

In one of the uglier bouts of the inevitable fanboy snark, an online troll criticized Carrie Fisher’s age, appearance, and performance, labeling the movie a “rest home flick.” The classy actress tweeted back in top form:

After sitting with my injured grandmother, holding her hand as she napped in a rest home, I silently applauded Ms. Fisher’s statement. It convinced me of two things.

  1. If my grandmother’s compassionate life is proof of anything, it is old age that’s the real accomplishment in this world
  2. There are many worse Disney Princesses to emulate than General Leia.

Star Wars is about family, and families are where heroes are made. But knights? Those only come when we let the heroes grow up and tell the end of their story.

 © Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Guest post: Knox Bible (Student Edition) at the Catholic Bibles blog

My latest entry at the Catholic Bibles blog, this time on an obscure edition of the Knox Bible from last century. Though different than my usual StoryWiseGuy fare, I do reference Star Trek, Star Wars, Tolkien, Harry Potter, and Graham Greene. I’ll link to it here in case it’s of interest. Feel free to check it out.


The Knox translation of the Latin Vulgate (aka “The Yoda Bible”)

Guest Post: A Resource for Praying Sacred Scripture >> Catholic Bibles Blog

My latest entry at the Catholic Bibles blog. It’s different than my usual StoryWiseGuy fare, so I’ll link to it here if it’s of interest. Feel free to check it out.



Guest Review: Christian Community Bible Revised Edition (2013) >> Catholic Bibles Blog

Proud to be guest-blogging at the Catholic Bibles blog, wearing another hat. A little different than my typical StoryWiseGuy post, so I’ll link back to it here. Feel free to check it out!


Guest Post: A Catholic Bible Taxonomy >> Catholic Bibles Blog

Proud to be a guest blogger at the Catholic Bibles blog. A little different than a StoryWiseGuy post, so I’ll link back to it here. Feel free to check it out!



Crisis of Faith! (or Have yourself a geeky little Advent)

My faith and geek lives are converging. Small wonder, since the same well waters both: imagination. After all, what is a geek but someone who enjoys imagined worlds as much as the real one? And what is the life of faith, other than enjoying a real world that comes from a bigger imagination than my own?

I know that’s perilously close to Hallmark, but bear with me. There’s a big difference between active imagination and empty sentimentality. One is often lost in the noise of the other, especially at this time of year. So I’d like to set the record straight.

For those of us living in calendar time, the end of the year is coming soon, and that can mean only one thing: Christmas!*

[*Insert culturally appropriate solstice festival of your choice.]

For those of us living in Christian liturgical time, however, the year ended on November 29, and that can mean only one thing: Advent!

Chocolate-filled countdown calendars aside, Advent is not “a time to get ready for Christmas.” It’s not about decorating and cocoa. If you haven’t darkened the door of a church in a while, you may be surprised by what you hear at this time of year. You probably expect readings anticipating cozy manger scenes and snowy silence, newborn babes, peace on Earth, and gentle, soothing hope for a jaded world.

If so, keep looking. No room for that in this inn.

No, when Advent began last Sunday, the first words of the religious year were:

“Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.” –Mark 13:33

In the religious imagination, Advent is the time to get ready for a new world, made perfect by God. The season is its own spirituality, not an adjunct to another holiday. These four weeks are marked by all the wonderful, rich, destructive/creative language of the prophets of Israel, calling impatiently for God to send his chosen among us, to unmake the unjust and broken world and fashion it again according to his own imagination.

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,
and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar
and the elements will be dissolved by fire,
and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.

Since everything is to be dissolved in this way,
what sort of persons ought you to be?” –2 Peter 3:10-11

So, Merry-freaking-Christmas! Grab the emergency kit and pile into the Winnebago!

Surprisingly, Advent is the holiday of the Apocalypse, preparing oneself for judgment and the unmaking of the world. We just celebrate it immediately before Christmas to close the emotional loop. Ordinary time comes to a fiery end in darkest November, so that everything can start fresh in a stable as the days grow light once more. When all that fierce yearning on the page finally culminates in Christmas, the readings shock us with their sudden silence. The practice of Advent is a literary adventure, its narrative dissonance a thing of beauty. The Christmas candlelight that strikes so many now as cloying becomes something else entirely once the stars have melted from the sky.

In a world where Christmas and religion itself has been emasculated with sweetness, I long for a faith that dares to be more powerful than worlds. I suspect I am not alone. Like any child, I yearned for Christmas. Now, like any geek, it is Advent I look forward to all year. Religious or not, geeks are especially attuned to the spirit of Advent. We are used to the end of the world, after all. It’s the signature theme in our chosen vice: genre fiction. Thirty years ago, for instance, worlds lived, worlds died, and nothing was ever the same.


DC Comics was turning 50 and having a late mid-life crisis. They had published the monthly adventures of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest for decades. Their stable of characters, now hundreds deep, had been created or acquired through World War II, Viet Nam, and the Cold War, somehow surviving each cultural shift, yet struggling to connect with each subsequent generation. To remain relevant, the publisher had created a complex fictional multiverse to house their vibrant cast of spandex-clad characters. The original Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman had emerged before the Manhattan Project. Their old four-color adventures seemed quaint to the modern geek of the Atomic Age, but were cultural vanguards that couldn’t simply be abandoned.

"40th Anniversary Super-Spectacular" in Superman #338.  Best. Comic Book. Ever.
“40th Anniversary Super-Spectacular” in Superman #338.
Best. Comic Book. Ever.

The solution seemed simple: give them their own fictional world. By the 1970s, the Superman I read each month wasn’t “the same” Superman that my father had read as a boy. Though there was no official transition, it was just understood that my adventures took place in the current publishing line, deemed “Earth-1,” while my father’s had been relegated to a parallel universe simply called “Earth-2.” The line stayed fresh without jettisoning heritage. My Clark Kent, after Christopher Reeve, grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, lived in an apartment at 344 Clinton Street and worked as a television news anchor. Dad’s Clark Kent, the original intrepid news reporter, grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, continuing to age and have unpublished adventures there. Occasionally a story would cross between worlds, the characters would meet, and we’d be treated to a nostalgic little update on the thrilling days of yesteryear.

However, as DC continued to acquire intellectual property from other publishers, they brought them into the fold on their own fictional, parallel Earths. Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel (Shazam!) now took place on Earth-5. American Comics’ Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters? Earth-X. Blue Beetle and the entire Charlton Comics catalogue of characters now comprised Earth-4. By the start of the 1980s, it was a bit of a mess. DC Comics had invented the superhero, but was bleeding market share to upstart Marvel Comics (Spider-Man, The Avengers). Moreover, the newsstand was dying, and independent publishers captured more and more of the direct market that replaced it. So they did the unthinkable: they destroyed their worlds and started over.

Fans who had read for decades, and kids like me, were transfixed by a year-long epic called “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” In it, all of DC’s characters in all of DC’s worlds band together to stop the Anti-Monitor, an all-powerful cosmic force that feeds on the death of one fictional dimension after another. A convoluted, fan-driven story that doesn’t always hold up to modern scrutiny, it can still pack quite a punch. Gone is the original universe of the old Superman and Batman stories. Both Supergirl and the Flash sacrifice their lives to stop the Anti-Monitor’s plan. In the end, only five alternate realities remain and avoid annihilation by merging into a single reality, sharing a single history. In one stroke of the pen, the publisher combined all of its far-flung properties into a single world rich with new storytelling potential. Characters that before could never meet, now could team up… or had even been friends for years. Fan-favorite alternate versions of characters from the 1930s could still stick around as legacy characters, inspiring younger heroes by the same name. Characters could be relaunched entirely for fresh takes on familiar stories. Some could be written out entirely.

Though there have been minor tweaks throughout the years, the latest in 2011, the “Crisis” of 1985 brought the advent of a new trend in imaginative fiction. Shocking in 1985, the idea of demolishing stories and starting them over now permeates popular culture. Everywhere you turn in genre fiction, stories are getting retold, rebooted, and reformed for new audiences. No longer a Victorian, Sherlock Holmes is now a fixture of modern London on the BBC. Thirty years and five series of Star Trek were effectively unwound in 2009 through a time-travel plot eliminating every episode and movie ever filmed, and replacing every character except for Leonard Nimoy. The 1970s sci-fi camp of Battlestar Galactica became masterful television drama in 2004, sharing only the names of the original characters. This summer, Godzilla rose again for the first time, but on the American side of the Pacific. A new take on Planet of the Apes is breathing new life into that old franchise. Director Bryan Singer patched up his flawed and popular X-Men series with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Like Star Trek above, a time travel plot removes past entries in the series… only this time, just the bad films! James Bond took a mulligan in Casino Royale and although time travel wasn’t involved, it may as well have been. Judi Dench had just replaced “M” for Pierce Brosnan’s seasoned Bond, only to have the series rebooted under her, playing the same character for Daniel Craig as a Bond in his first adventure. Even Scooby-Doo is about to be rebooted next year.


UPDATE 12/15/14: Looks like the Scooby Gang isn’t the only one getting a do-over makeover. After 73 years of unbroken publishing history, Archie Andrews and the Riverdale High Gang are being rebooted for modern sensibilities. An epic combination of creators Mark Waid and Fiona Staples will start readers afresh with a new Archie #1 in 2015, going back to the “origin” story of the classic Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle and getting the gang together for the first time… all over again.

“Possible new looks” illustrated by Fiona Staples for Jughead, Betty and Archie via http://www.comicbookresources.com

In a way, this is nothing new. Folk and tall tales are meant to be reinvented with each retelling. Until now, however, media properties have not. We tend to look at them as snapshots of their time, moments frozen on film that rerun with our own memories on the late night cable of our lives.

It’s tempting to see this merely as a lack of creative imagination, a crass cashing in on worn-out franchises and middle-aged male nostalgia. After all, the list above reads like the contents of a fourth-grade boy’s bedroom floor in 1980.  That would be true, if only the properties proved inferior to the originals. As a fan, however, it’s painful to admit: the results are often amazing. Where the originals may be “classic,” the re-imaginings are “powerful.” More than just remakes, they offer a depth of characterization and plotting the old versions aspired to yet simply couldn’t contain.

Instead, I see a popular culture that’s making favorite fiction into oral tradition, a kind of urban renewal of the imagination. Similar to the religious imagination, geek culture must move beyond the collector stereotype of “sealing the past in plastic.” Like prophetic faith, it is learning to let go of the idols it’s made of its playtime. If favorite worlds are going to live, and become the best versions of themselves, then they must die and be recreated in love. It’s not “another Hollywood remake.” It’s geek evangelism.

Kind of exciting really. Like a rebuilt engine in a classic car. Like old wine in new wineskins. Like Advent.

“Behold, I make all things new.” -Revelation 21:5

 © Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Ugliest Painting in the World

The ugliest painting in the world hangs in the window of a shop around the corner from my home. I can’t keep my eyes off of it.

The Ugliest Painting in the World

There’s something so compelling about it. I can’t decide if it’s mere mid-century kitsch, or an earnest attempt to grasp at spiritual themes of transcendence, duality, and grandeur just beyond our reach. The antique store owner has optimistically labeled it a “surrealist” depiction of good versus evil, but to my eye there’s nothing surrealist about it. It’s a straightforward depiction of the climactic scene of Eschenbach’s medieval grail romance, Parzival. Here, at the climax of his quest for the sacred chalice, the hero battles with a mysterious dark knight from a far-off Islamic kingdom whom he cannot best. In the battle, one’s sword breaks and the other is wounded, so the knights lift their visors in respect only to discover they are in fact half-brothers, sharing the same knight as their father. “I was against my own self,” says Parzival. In that instant of self-realization, Parzival’s name appears on the grail. He becomes the new Grail King, re-uniting East and West as the two brothers return to the Grail Castle together.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this since reading the start of my friend Mark Pulver’s excellent blog sequence about midlife. In it he explores his personal spiritual growth in the framework of Richard Rohr’s “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.” It contends that, rather than a single trajectory through life, the spirit is actually shaped around two distinctly different tasks, necessary for two distinctly different phases of life. If the first half of life is best characterized as a “survival dance” of finding one’s place,  then the second half of life entails a “sacred dance” wherein that place, great or small, is made sacred and significant as the soul comes to terms with who it is and who it is preparing to leave behind. The difficulty many face, it seems, can stem from a refusal to adapt, to continue seeking satisfaction in the skills and rewards of the “survival” phase, when in reality the “sacred” part of the journey requires something else entirely. The mid-life crisis, in short, is neither more nor less than being “against my own self.” Mark writes:

Here, society might trivialize my mid-life experience and tell me that I’m just afraid of getting old, that there is no second journey, and that only a tune-up is needed. It tells me to keep shoring up the container, maybe install some additions, buy a new car for the garage, and keep moving up the ladder with sound and fury… But I can assure you that more feathers in my cap will not do real the trick here. Don’t be fooled–there really is a second journey. My recent experience says that a second journey is beckoning me right now with a very different set of concerns and questions and ideals. I find this very exciting. To become fully who God created me to be, I need to realize that maybe I’ve been building my “stage” for a second kind of performance. Maybe the first half of ascending and building was just preliminary work for the real act of life where I can serve others more on a decent first-half platform. 

I’ll be curious to learn more about Rohr’s two spiritual phases in Mark’s blogging. It reminds me of my favorite first line: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost.”

That was Dante was writing about the midlife experience as far back as the 14 Century. And it’s important to note how he tackled it: not in the soft language of “spiritually,” but in the solid, worldly imagery of “religion,” trekking upward from Hell, through the perfecting ascent of Purgatory, before he could finally achieve Paradise.

As a younger man, I was especially drawn to all that primal, symbolic Christianity in things like Parzival, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and even Beowulf. All that Joseph-Campbell-Hero’s-Journey stuff makes a lot of sense when you’re a young knight seeking life’s adventure while keeping an eye out for signs of the grail and all the mystery it entails in the years of the survival dance.

Today, however, midway through my own life’s journey, it is the last part of Beowulf I find most compelling. Long after the monsters have been slain, one final adventure remains, the least adventurous and therefore the most challenging of all: the king has to die so his people may live. 

In other words, it’s about coming to terms with lack of fulfillment, finding what’s holy in “this is all I will ever be.”

I think being religious – in my case a Catholic coming from the Anglican tradition – can help with this experience in mid-life for three reasons:

  1. It tempers reality with hope – Faith teaches us not to confuse fulfillment with fullness of life. When embraced as a discipline, Western tradition encourages us to deem our life and body as nothing more than “a grain of wheat” being planted (John 12:24). That life, and the many real concerns of its first half in particular, is confused as an end unto itself is a flawed vision, like one’s own reflection seen “in a mirror dimly” (1Cor 13:12). What if mortality really is just preparation for REAL life?
  2. It suggests God has a way better perspective on our value than we do – Let’s face it: life makes us feel little. Especially in Silicon Valley and the tech economy, the great idolatry of our age is the cult of the exceptional self.

    And it is not that we aren’t exceptional. It is that so many dare not be anything other, no matter the cost. To be religious is to challenge that whole line of unexceptional thinking. We are of infinite value because we are so very ordinary and uninspiring. In the end, even the most “iconic” among us will show ourselves to be quite unexceptional, seemingly less worthy of human or divine acclaim than common sparrows, sold for two pennies. That’s the good news. “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Mat 10:29-31).
  3. It brings a context of meaning to unfulfillment, suffering, and even pain – The religious mind strives to experience all pain like childbirth; it is a way God tries to make more of us. Paradoxically, it is so-called religious people who are least equipped to handle it themselves, or encourage others who are suffering. “It must be God’s will,” they say in response to tragedy, or that he “works in mysterious ways” or “never gives us more than we can handle.” If they’re really scared, they’ll send you a postcard about footprints. But a serious embrace of religion in the West reveals remarkable clarity of thinking on this point. Far from platitudes, we have our own unique twist on the detachment typically attributed by Hollywood to Yoda or Eastern esotericism. When challenged to explain the unearned suffering of a man born blind, Jesus’ almost dumbfounded response was “that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (John 9:3). Unfair? Proof of a God who is ultimately unloving, and therefore all human belief in him must be manufactured? Well, maybe, but I’d contend the fact that suffering is spread around may be evidence to the contrary. The truth, regardless of motivational speakers, is that we are all equal opportunity sufferers. In the immortal words of William Goldman in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” The “spiritual” answer to that is to “come to terms” with one’s own suffering. The “religious” response is to recognize it is universal, and to let God make something of it. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves.” (Rom 8:22-23)

That is why although Dante’s Inferno gets all the recognition, it’s his Purgatorio I find the most beautiful. It is The Empire Strikes Back of the Divine Comedy, the middle chapter of a trilogy, bringing all the ideas of Episode I together and improving them, without quite resolving them. Much like Purgatory itself, one of the most misunderstood gifts of the Western religious tradition. To quote Saint John Paul II (canonized today), Purgatory is the “condition of existence” where God “removes… the remnants of imperfection.” 

If that’s all too Catholic, then Protestants can think of it as the kind of maturing faith the Apostle Paul was writing about when he said: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ… for this I labor and struggle, in accord with the exercise of his power working within me.” (Col 1:24-29) Or if you’re Buddhist, consider it a bardo.

It’s only as I’ve entered midlife myself that words like this, or Purgatorio or the end of Beowulf, start to make sense. I heard that passage described once like being a kid helping your mother make cookies. She doesn’t REALLY need your help, but always gives you something to stir. Now replace suffering for the dough, and God for your mother, and you get the idea. If faith is really a connection to somebody real, then some of that suffering gets poured into our bowl for us to stir. If we do so intentionally, then the cook can make something of it. 

Which, circling back to Richard Rohr and my friend Mark, is what midlife can be about… if we choose the hard work instead of the easy answers. If we can believe that the spiritual journey is in fact a process, then everything – from our lack of fulfillment to active suffering – can be an opportunity to enter the condition of purgatory now, as life sands down our own jagged imperfections for our own good, and that of the world we will some day leave behind.

And therein we find strength and purpose to endure. Like a bad painting.

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