Issue 2 - Tues 13 Oct

 A Silver Lining by Richard Leonard SJ

Saturday October 10 was the United Nation’s annual World Mental Health Day. Promoted by the presently-famous World Health Organisation, its purpose in the mental health space to: raise awareness; mobilize efforts; provide an opportunity for all stakeholders to talk about their work; and chart what more needs to be done for people worldwide. We have never needed all of this more.

COVID-19 has seen a spike in anxiety, depression, self-harm, addictive behaviours, isolation, and domestic violence. As one local example, the increased demand for the services provided by Mary’s House and the North Sydney Council’s Daisy Centre tells some of the story.

None of this comes as a surprise. The present pandemic has only dramatically exacerbated a mental health crisis that has been acute for some time. Last year, the Australian Government report The Mental Health of Children and Adolescence made for grim reading. Something is terribly wrong when in most developed countries like our own the biggest killer of young adults is now suicide.

This report talks constantly about “meaninglessness” as one of the main drivers for poor mental health, where a person feels they do not matter in the scheme of things, not to any other person, and not to the community. The increase in meaninglessness is connected to a rise in utilitarianism and individualism and to personal autonomy being recognised as an absolute value: my worth or meaning is gauged by money and status; “I am what I do”; “No one can tell me what to do, especially with my body.”

The study goes on to list several causes, a few of which have been around for a while: marriage breakdown; extended families and local communities that fail to make young people feel connected and instead feeling they belong to no one; “helicopter parents” leaving their children feeling anxious and smothered; having so many choices that they are immobilised; and being inculcated in the attitude that “I can achieve anything I want”, leading to unrealistic expectations and lack of awareness of the preparation and hard work that is needed to achieve a goal.

Social media comes in for careful and critical analysis in the government’s report. The government report highlights the seeming contradiction between never having more possibilities for making connections online, and at the same time young adults never feeling more isolated. In the online world, “friends”, whom one may never have met, are considered real friends; “likes”, or the lack of them, control self-esteem and mood; and the fallout from addictions, including to online pornography, is devastating.

WHO and the Australian government’s mental health report argues for further study, new protocols, and improved procedures. These are worthwhile and important and I hope they will have an impact. As followers of Christ, however, we need to talk about hope, or the increasing lack of it. Meaninglessness is born of hopelessness.

Pope Francis has often linked hope to encouragement, to pursuing dreams, to joy, to being forgiven and having compassion, to seeking the truth, to forming consciences, and being mentored and accompanied here on earth and by the cloud of witnesses in heaven. And he argues against “those who worship the ‘goddess of lament’ … She is a false goddess: she makes you take the wrong road. When everything seems to be standing still and stagnant, when our personal issues trouble us, and social problems do not meet with the right responses, it does no good to give up. Jesus is the way: welcome him into your ‘boat’ and put out into the deep! He is the Lord! He changes the way we see life. Faith in Jesus leads to greater hope, to a certainty based not on our qualities and skills, but on the word of God, on the invitation that comes from him. Without making too many human calculations, and without worrying about things that challenge your security, put out into the deep.” (Christus Vivit. #77: the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation dedicated to young people)

In my many dealings with young people, most poignantly at the funerals of their friends who have taken their own lives, they respond most to a hope that trusts in God’s mercy and love, that knows that we are connected to a greater story, to a welcoming and inclusive Catholic community and to looking for a life yet to come. Christian hope affirms and celebrates that we know where we have come from, why we are here and where we are going, and that we are not doing this on our own.

A government report can never say it, but the breakdown in communities of hope, especially the breakdown in faith communities, of the kind that we are experiencing in the Church in Australia, has had negative effects on the mental wellbeing not just of young Catholics but all of us too. While shouldering our fair share of the blame for our faith not attracting young people in anything like the way we would like to see – partly because our community of hope is often seen by young people as hopeless – those of us who know that Christ is alive have to redouble our efforts to live our Christian faith with hope and joy. The mental health of our children – and all of us - depends on it.

Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of What Does it All Mean? A Guide to Living Lives of Faith Hope and Love (Paulist Press, 2018)

available at St Paul’s bookstore, (02) 9264 8630,  https://www.paulinebooks.com.au/product/detail.cgi?id=9780809148035

Some thought provoking films about mental health

THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert de Niro, and Jackie Weaver. Directed by David O. Russell. Rated M (Mature themes, coarse language, sexual references and violence). 122 min.

This clever and original American film is the first movie in over 30 years to score Oscar nominations in all four acting categories. Its originality lies in the quirkiness with which it portrays contemporary family life in America, and it was adapted from the novel of the same name by Matthew Quick.

The film centres its plot on a disturbed, ex-mental patient, Pat Solitano, who has been deserted by his wife and charged for assaulting her lover. It tells the story of his personal search to re-establish his marriage. In the course of pursuing that goal, he meets an equally disturbed young girl, Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), and they begin to form a relationship that survives the ups and downs of mutual mental disturbance. He is bipolar, and she is severely depressed and a possible sex-addict. Mental disturbance features strongly elsewhere in the movie. Pat's father is obsessive and a football fanatic, his best friend suffers from anxiety neurosis, and his mother lives on the edge of permanently being unable to cope.

Robert de Niro plays Patrizio Solitano, his father, and Australia's Jackie Weaver plays his mother, Dolores, and all four main actors give outstanding performances. It is a bit unnerving to contemplate that the four are meant to represent family life bubbling along in modern-day, stressed America, but they are a spirited ensemble group working very well to bring the quality movie to an unexpected conclusion. Pat Jr. 's motto is "Excelsior" - to improve and excel - and the movie's title draws its meaning from his private battle against life's negativity, so as to prove to himself that he is not a quitter. He believes passionately that "if you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining". Bradley Cooper gives a wonderful, finely-tuned performance in this role, and Jennifer Lawrence matches the quality of his acting in subtlety and sophistication.

The emotional themes of this movie are designed to be troubling. They deal with mental illness, marital failure, inability to cope, and profound personal vulnerability. People survive in this movie by constantly negotiating through their vulnerabilities, and the fact that this all happens in a comic way makes the film particularly quirky and unusual. The fact that the movie is genuinely funny and romantic is in no small way due to the performances of the main characters being so well pitched. All performances are delivered somewhere between the contrasting emotional mood-states of deep cynicism, and affectionate sweetness.

A movie with such a philosophy was headed inevitably toward some form of happiness and resolution of conflict. Pat Snr. wages all his money on a football game and the results of a dance competition in which his son and Tiffany have entered. The route to "Excelsior", however, is not sport and dancing, and both activities prove weak metaphors for locating  happiness, indicating that the movie opts in the final run for bland and popular ways to face major problems in life. But until that point, the film is highly absorbing, and very smart.

Combating negativity in life offers a goal that has universal appeal. Resolving it so simply is not as convincing as this very different and watchable movie would have us believe.

Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of Jesuit Media.

Roadshow Films. 

2012

……………….

MELANCHOLIA. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt. Directed by Lars von Trier.136 minutes. Rated M (Sexual references, nudity and coarse language).

At one point, director Lars von Trier focuses on a dictionary and the various meanings of melancholia.  Already we have seen a pensive, inward-looking bride which suggests the melancholic mental disposition and its emotions.  But, we soon learn that a planet veering towards earth, with the potential to destroy and consume it, is also called Melancholia.

This is also a film about two sisters, made clear by the nomination of Part I and Part II.

The first sister is the younger, Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst.  She is the glimpsed bride in the prologue.  Part I is a portrait of her wedding, beginning with a long limousine unable to get through narrow country roads and the couple being late for the celebration. To the anxiety of the older sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband (Kiefer Sutherland). Initially, playful, Justine begins to act erratically (understatement) to the growing bewilderment of her gracious husband (Alexander Skarsgaard).  Among the guests are the bon-vivant father (John Hurt) and his acidic ex-wife (Charlotte Rampling) and Justine’s employer (Stellan Skarsgaard). Enough enigmatic events occur which make us wonder about Justine, her state of mind and her future.  As a visual and dramatic exploration of a disturbed character, the film is sometimes masterly.

Part II is not exactly a portrait of Claire because Justine is still to the forefront of the picture.  Justine is in Claire’s care as she suffers from depression. There is a love-hate relationship between the two.  It is mostly hate on the part of Claire’s husband.  But their son is attached to his aunt.  Claire is not only preoccupied with coping with Justine but she grows more and more afraid that the planet is moving dangerously towards earth.  Her husband reassures her.  However, as the planet nears, she goes into panic mode while Justine seems calmer, a touch fatalistic.  How will they deal with imminent destruction without any resources except themselves, no transcendent hope?

Von Trier has chosen to confine all the action to the mansion that serves as a hotel for a golf course for the wealthy.  Apart from the wedding guests and the staff, there is no actual contact with the outer world.  Media contact is through the internet.  So, this isolated group serves as a microsmic metaphor for macrocosmic events.  In terms of realism, it doesn’t really work, so the audience is asked to suspend disbelief and focus on the symbolic few.  Easy for those who are absorbed.  Not easy for those not persuaded by the premise.

Which means, as with all von Trier’s films, that there are contradictory opinions, enthusiasm and hostility or, as one unsympathetic reviewer remarked, he was indifferent.  Whatever one’s response, von Trier makes distinctive films.

[The small budget American film, Another Earth, was released about the same time as Melancholia.  There are similarities in plot concerning a new planet and its relationship to Earth, but quite a difference in outlook between the two films.]

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of Jesuit Media.

Madman

2011.

About the author

Richard Leonard is a Jesuit priest. He has degrees in arts and education, as well as a Master’s degree in theology. Fr Richard did graduate studies at the London Film School and has a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Catholic University; has been a visiting scholar within the School of Theatre, Film & Television at UCLA and a Visiting Professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He directed the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference for 22 years. He has served on juries at the Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Warsaw, Hong Kong, Montreal, Brisbane and Melbourne International Film Festivals and he has lectured on faith and culture all over the world. He has been published in America MagazineEureka StreetUS Catholic, is regular columnist with The London Tablet and is a regular guest on ABC Radio.

He is the author of ten books, among the titles are:  

Where the Hell is God?

What does it all mean? A guide to being more faithful, hopeful and loving

His most recent book is Hatch, Match & Dispatch: A Catholic Guide to Sacraments.

Richard’s next book The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom, will be released in early 2021.

 

 

Issue 1 - Tues 06 Oct

 

Richard Leonard image

A Silver Lining by Richard Leonard SJ

October 4 is the feast of St Francis of Assisi. This year it fell on a Sunday and so was not publically observed. Only ten Solemnities and four feast days are observed when they fall on Sundays. St Francis of Assisi’s day is not one of them.

I am fairly certain the distributors of David Attenborough: A Life for Our Planet did not intentionally time the release of their excellent documentary around October 4, but they could have. Francis is famously the patron saint of animals, the environment and ecologists.

Peter Malone, one of Jesuit Media’s reviewers says of this film: “… David Attenborough is a man of moral stature, a celebrity that the world has welcomed over many years, a man who has invited a world audience to share his passion – and, in this witness statement, in this will and testimony, he invites us to continue to share and promote his passion into the future.” His full review is at: https://www.australiancatholics.com.au/article/david-attenborough--a-life-on-our-planet

Enjoying this 123 minute film would be a creative way of honouring the patron saint of creation. You can find film sessions at:  https://au.attenborough.film/ and, at a later date, it will be streamed on Netflix.

…………….

“Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” 

Given that this film focuses our attention on creation it seems appropriate to focus on Franciscan Spirituality.  The Biblical tradition gives us multiple ways to communicate with God; and the lived tradition of the Catholic Church has expanded on these ways into what are grandly called Schools of Prayer. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that there is one way to God, one way of praying in private or public. The scriptures and the tradition of the church tell a very different story. In every ear of the Christian Church’s life, many charismatic individuals have emerged to challenge the church in its practices, it discipline or lack of it, and often in its prayer. No matter how much the Christians of their day did not like what they heard at the time, history has seen many of these individuals declared Saints, which is more than we can say for their poor detractors. Around holy men and women schools of spirituality developed, either in their lifetimes, or subsequently.  There are scores of these schools, but the six longest and most popular are: Desert Spirituality; Benedictine; Franciscan; Dominican; Carmelite and Ignatian. I am brave Jesuit to summarise another School because there are libraries written on and around each of them, but here is taster on how we might start to realise how many rooms there actually are in the our spiritual home. 

 

Franciscan Spirituality

Nearly every major movement of spirituality in Christianity has arisen to answer a set of serious issues in the life of the church. No other school of prayer proves this more than the Franciscans. The church of the late 11th and 12th Century was split in many directions. The Holy Roman Empire and the Papal States were frequently at war, some churchmen were bloated on money and power and the abuse of both, the earliest Crusades were mounted, a mini-Renaissance flourished and several spiritual movements appeared to call the Church back from its worldly ambitions to the message of Christ. In 1209 Francis received a vision in which Christ says, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”  Later that year he was to write the Primitive Rule and his earliest companions joined him in the Orders of Friars Minor, the Little Brothers. By the time Francis died in 1226, he had 4,000 followers and by 1260 there were 30,000 Franciscans. Something powerful had been unleashed by Francis and Clare, and, ever since, the world inside and outside the church has been enticed and fascinated by it. 

As nearly everyone would know, at the heart of Franciscan Spirituality is the love of poverty, simplicity, living in peace and being in harmony with the created order. Is it any wonder this spirituality still speaks to us today? What is less well-known, but central for Francis, is the constant call to being converted to the poor and crucified Christ, a deep communion with the Church, a life of prayer that was personal and liturgical, and a life lived in joy.

Anyone who wants to be a reformer has to take Franciscan Spirituality seriously inside or outside the Church. Francis even loved the broken church and unfair world of the 12th Century. He loved humanity so much that his way of reforming it was not to rant and rave (though later Franciscans became some of the best minds in Europe) but to model and embody, the very reform he sought. Francis is the patron saint of those who talk the talk and walk the walk. Even if his opponents were against what he was saying, they could doubt his personal integrity. Most of his enemies are lost to history. Francis is a Saint and the founder of world-wide movement that nurtures prayer across the faith-spectrum to this day.     

In recent years, of course Francis and Clare have been reborn as patrons saints of living with integrity with the environment, and rightly so. Francis articulated the ethic of the seamless garment of life, long before the term was crafted. These days Franciscan spirituality reminds us that the issue of caring for the environment is an important part of our Christian commitment for justice, that while the earth has been entrusted to us as stewards, to be preserved, it is also given into our hands to be developed in such a way that there will be a productive earth for future generations to inherit.

We can see how Francis call to simplicity for all compliments the contemporary call to limit our consumption, change our priorities in regard to energy and trade and show the third world the way in developing eco-friendly industries. Whatever our take might be on how we care for the created order, most of us know that we cannot keep going as we are, with ever increasing unsustainable demands on our planet. Francis knew that the Old and New Testaments were filled with the importance of our relationships to the earth. In the book of Genesis humanity is told to care for and subdue the earth, not wreck it. Avarice is not one of the seven deadly sins for nothing.

Franciscan Spirituality is not just about finding God in nature. It is that, and may it keep calling us to it. It is also that our stand for justice always takes into account the care our earth requires so that we have a productive planet to hand on to our children, and we hand it on to them in better shape than we found it.

Franciscan Spirituality is the gift that keeps giving.

Rev Dr. Richard Leonard SJ is the author of Why Bother Praying? (Paulist Press, 2013) available at St Paul’s bookstore, (02) 9264 8630,  Paulinebooks