by Mary Rose Betten
Paul F. Ford, Ph.D., Professor of Systematic Theology and Liturgy, St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo, California, was honored this year as St. John’s distinguished alumni. Dr. Ford was the first Roman Catholic in the doctoral program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. His award-winning book, Companion to Narnia (HarperCollins) is now in its fourth edition. He is married to Janice Daurio, PhD. Mary Rose Betten: Since you are both composer and author (not to mention international authority on C. S. Lewis) could you give us a Paul Ford take on what “The Catholic Imagination?” means to you? Paul F. Ford: G. K. Chesterton is the best guide to the Catholic Imagination, even just in the title he gave to his collections essays called All Is Grist. The Catholic imagination is the faculty for paying attention –for really seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling. We call it the sacrament of the present moment. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls it mindfulness.
As Emily asks in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?” The stage manager replies: “No.” Then he pauses and says, “The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.”
MRB: You spent the last week of July creating words and music at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur. Was that with their Prior, Father Cyprian? Please share your thoughts with us on creating new compositions.
PF: Yes, with Cyprian Consiglio and Paul Inwood and Catherine Christmas and Carol Browning – we are the Collegeville Composers Group. Years ago the Liturgical Press asked me to edit a new hymnal but, after some thought, I concluded that the Catholic Church did not need another hymnal – it needs to recover the use of psalms and canticles as out proper prayer language. So in the last nine years we have composed about 350 new antiphons for Mass and have five CDs and eight books to our credit. We all wrote the antiphon texts, we all wrote the melodies, and we all did the vocal arrangements of all the pieces. That’s why there is no individual ownership listed for any text, tune, or arrangement. We share all royalties according to a formula we have all agreed upon (we initially tried to keep track of what and how much each composer contributed, words and music – but this quickly became impossible) and established the Collegeville Composers Group as a name to enflesh our collaborative work together. We all agree: This was the hardest work we have ever done, but the most rewarding and the most exhilarating.
MRB: Do you prefer silence when you write or do you have music playing in the background?
PF: I usually prefer silence; but, when I have something important to write, I listen to the solo instrumental works of J. S. Bach. Bach has a way of herding my stray thoughts and energies. If my work is very important (grading students’ work, preparing lectures, writing this interview for Mary, and the like), I light a beeswax pillar. The smell of real beeswax, the sacrifice of the bees, and the work of the chandler reminds me to be consecrated to my task. Of course, when I am writing music, I cannot have any other music playing. MRB: With your busy schedule of teaching at St. John’s Seminary and traveling to give talks, etc. you have managed every Tuesday morning for fifteen years to teach the upcoming Sunday readings to parishioners of Padre Serra Parish, in Camarillo, California.
MRB: You give us the gift of deep wisdom, the assurance of God’s presence, and unfailing humor. Would you share how you experience this time with such a diverse audience?
PF: I love teaching and giving talks; but the bible study brings out the humor in me that no other speaking does. I never prepare the humor and I can’t really tell a funny story (I balk at the pressure of remembering it); but the humor comes unbidden when I try to help people hear the Word of God and receive it as a gift. C. S. Lewis said that the test of theological knowledge is the ability to translate into the language of the average person. I tell my seminarians that that they have to keep in mind average folks – “Joe Six-pack and his wife Juana Corona” – when they preach. I get to practice that skill when I am with my people in liturgical bible study.
MRB: I have experienced firsthand how you encourage spiritual creativity in emerging artists, not with just words, but with actual projects, and commissioning. You intuit others gifts and light their way. How can we learn to encourage spiritual creativity?
PF: The Unitarian Fellowship here in Camarillo once distributed bumper stickers with the sentence: “Seek the good and praise it.” I wish I had one to put on my car. That’s the way I want to live my life. I like to think of myself as Barnabas, a son of encouragement (Acts 4:36). My favorite passage from my favorite sermon by C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” is: “It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. . . . There are no ordinary people.” I also love this line from Wilder: “Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.” But money isn’t the only thing young people need: They need listeners, they need to be regarded. Someone needs to ask the “open sesame” question all of us need to hear: “What is it like to be you?” Others did that for me and I feel called to do that for others.
MRB: Do you pray best with music or words?
PF: I pray with words, usually the psalms and canticles, and the hymn texts of Sister Genevieve Glen, O.S.B. I learned to pray with the prayers of others, especially the Prayers of Michel Quoist. But then I read C. S. Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer and, later, Ann and Barry Ulanov’s books, Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer. They taught me that prayer is born of hope and hope is born of desire. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas both teach that prayer is the interpreter of desire. The psalms and canticles especially have become liberators of desire for me.
Postscript: Cardinal Roger Mahony honored Paul with the Laudatus Award “for excellence in the promotion of the liturgical life of the parishes and the people of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.” By Flowing Waters: Chant for the Liturgy (The Liturgical Press) played as I proof-read Dr. Ford’s words. Hearing his music at the same time clarifies not only his identification but my own as well. May “the psalms and canticles become liberators of desire for all.” – See more at: http://www.catholicfiction.net/blog/the-bees-sacrifice-and-the-open-sesame-question-of-the-day-an-interview-with-catholic-writer-and-musician-paul-f-ford.php#sthash.Z2Wvi4iE.7Hfgo16a.dpuf
by Mary Rose Betten
Father Jim Clarke’s book Creating Ritual, A New Way of Healing For Everyday Life (Paulist Press) is a must read for any writer. Every week in our parish writing group, his book holds a place for all to see in the front of the room, reminding us to keep the three rituals we have chosen to practice during our two hour writing class.
First, we keep silence.
Second, when free-writes are read aloud, we comment only on what resonates.
Third, we never conclude our ten minute free-write without including humor. We call that “F.S.F.” (find something funny.)
Of course these are “writer takes” on Father Jim’s encouragement for ritual. Though our writing group gives a writer’s view to Father Jim’s rituals for transformation, since he is a writer, we have his blessing.
I learned the value of finding humor by attending Father Jim’s talks on ritual where I experienced his audience crying one minute then laughing the next. You would never guess anyone so wise could be so witty.
Inspired by his words, I purchased his book Creating Ritual – and then called for an appointment with him for spiritual direction. Of course I had to wait a few weeks to see him within this waiting period I had had a pivotal dream. It seemed providential: I could go to him now and offer him some material for his interpretation.
In my dream I am in a gigantic tank of ocean water, enclosed in glass with George Clooney. The tank is inside a museum, and people stand close to the glass observing us. We are beneath billowy covers and the museum audience is supposed to interpret what we are doing.
When I told this to Father Jim, he listened, cleared his throat, and then asked, “What does George Clooney symbolize to you?”
“Well, uh, I always found dark-haired men attractive and of course he is always doing good things and…uh, he is Catholic.”
Fr. Jim looked at me directly and said, “I think – creativity.”
“Excuse me Father?”
“Well you are…and he is….creativity.”
I still didn’t hear. Or I heard it very clear and couldn’t believe what he was saying….
I didn’t dare ask a third time so I replied, “Yes, I see. Father Jim, would you object if I brought a tape recorder the next time?”
The following month I entered with the tape recorder on.
MRB: Father my favorite passage is Mark 7:24-30 (the story of Jesus and the Syropoenician woman seeking healing for her daughter). Do you consider this a humorous passage?
FJC: Yes, I do. The beauty of a good story is that we can enter the story from so many different angles. One way to see this exquisitely poignant interaction is from the perspective of a woman who will do anything to get her daughter healed, including groveling at the feet of this itinerant preacher. Here she is in a man’s world publicly jousting with Jesus in a masterful way, using his words against him. I picture him laughing at her creative wit! Thus she wins the prize—healing for her daughter!
MRB: This is my favorite passage because the Syrophoenician woman is courageous in facing Jesus and also it involves food and personal identity. Food is such a constant temptation for me and often I feel like the frantic dogs she mentions under the table, waiting to pounce. I see them get tangled in the table cloth, knocking dishes to the floor, growling and baring their teeth while people are trying to eat.
FJC: Yes, indeed. The more we can bring our own life experience and struggles to bear on the Scriptures the more it comes alive. Our imagination then helps to bring meaning to the text.
MRB: Do you think this passage illustrates finding our personal identification as well?
FJC: Absolutely! Where are you in this scene? Do you identify with the woman, the other guests at table, Jesus, the dogs, or the table? How we enter the story gives us a wonderful perspective on how we are dealing with life at the moment.
MRB: This passage has appeared in my dreams twice. First, when I started as a stand-up comic (on stage I was a stranger in a foreign land) and the second time when our daughter, as a high school graduation present, traveled alone to Europe. I feared she would lose her faith, her money, and her common sense…Do you consider recurring dreams a type of ritual?
FJC: No, I see dreams as a commentary on how we are living or not living our life. Often dreams point us in the direction of a good ritual.
MRB: I understand there is a section on humor in your new book. What is the book’s title and is there a point there about humor you would encourage a writer to consider?
FJC: The book is entitled: Soul Centered: Spirituality for People on the Go (Paulist Press). Truly spiritual people have a healthy sense of humor and enjoy developing that perspective. This is what makes them believable, attractive, and balanced. A good sense of humor lightens the load and reminds us not to take ourselves so seriously. Laughter and tears are embodied expressions of seeing life as it is: True and absurd at the same time. The one who cannot laugh is a fool. So keep laughing and share the joy!”
I was tempted to ask him to repeat his conclusion to my George Clooney dream so I would have it on tape but it was far more inviting to keep on laughing and sharing the joy.
Originally published on CatholicFiction.net
Editor’s Note: Below is a gift from San Francisco, “The City by the Bay,” to spiritual writers interested in the use of humor. The Archbishop’s letter is addressed to frequent CatholicFiction.net contributor Mary Rose Betten’s parish writing class, known as “The Padre Serra Writers,’” in Camarillo, Calif. The archbishop wrote the letter in answer to a request for guidance regarding the use of humor in the Catholic Imagination.
Many a saint tells us that humility is the foundation of all the Christian virtues, and I have yet to meet a humble person who did not have a sense of humor, at least about himself or herself. If you are looking for the humorless you will find them among the proud, the self-absorbed and the selfish.
Sure, all that may be true, but did Jesus Christ have a sense of humor?
For 27 years I taught English at Saint John’s Seminary College, in Camarillo, California. One of my courses was the study of satire as a literary mode. At the beginning of the semester the students were preparing to enjoy some of the assigned readings, but a number of them harbored the suspicion that, for a seminarian anyway, there was something at least a bit disreputable about satire.
That’s why I began the class by saying that we all know the beautiful prayer that Jesus taught us, the Our Father. I then asked them whether they could think of an instance in which Jesus Christ made fun of a bad prayer. Few ever could. Then I referred them to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 18:9-14, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, during which Jesus contrasts the prayers of the two men. First, there is the Pharisee: “Oh God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and I pay tithes on all my income.”
That prayer has what I call an obvious “I” problem.
Then comes the prayer of the tax collector: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Also, in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus is teaching us not to judge others, he uses a marvelously funny overstatement: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first, then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:4-5).
St. Philip, a wonderful priest in Rome in the sixteenth century, was horrified to learn that people were referring to him as a “living saint.” His response was to shave off half his beard! Better they should say he was eccentric than a saint!
Finally, God must have a sense of humor. After all, he created all of us!
And he did so, not as a bad joke, but because he loves us. Humor does not have to scar or harm or offend. Sometimes it is the best way to discover a truth that is obvious but ignored.
May God bless your writing efforts, and your teacher, my longtime friend, Mary Rose Betten.
By Mary Rose Betten
We hope for something to happen, dream something might happen, and then finally… something happens. Where is God in our hoping and dreaming? Is He as much there as He is when something finally happens? Is life an audition?
On auditions for a TV commercial you might rate a second callback, and possibly a third callback, referred to as your “final callback.” According to union rules, you must be paid for the third audition; the competition usually comes down to one or two other people. You sign in – turn to take a seat, and there sits one or two competing actresses. Thousands of dollars in residuals are at stake here.
You walk to the water cooler and experience the temptation to offer your one competitor a drink with poison in it, and, with your sign-in pen, to stab the other. You want to cry out, “Holy Spirit, clear my mind!” – but not before you hear the Devil hint at ways to undermine your fellow actresses: “Don’t sit; keep standing and pace. That will make them nervous.” But I couldn’t do it because the Holy Spirit said, Sit down and trust.
The highest paying commercials are laundry and dishwashing soaps. In my day (yes, there was sound in film in the sixties) we had Oxydol, Thrill, Tide… (Please! I didn’t name them; I just auditioned to sell them! I don’t think I want to know what Oxydol means – and how could washing dishes be a Thrill? )
I shot the first commercial of my life for Oxydol. It was winter in New York. I had arrived just months earlier from Southern Illinois and wondered where the commercial would be shot. –On location in Florida? I had nothing to wear in Florida, and we were flying there on Monday! The Salvation Army thrift store was closed on Saturday and Sunday, so I cut the sleeves and turtleneck off my sweater.
The union demands they fly their commercial “stars” first class. My seat-mate on the plane was a Jesuit being flown first class by a company who had scheduled him to give a talk. He made up jokes about a priest and an actress flying first class. He was to become my spiritual director – from him I would learn to build a foundation of faith for my career. I think the Holy Spirit sent him to prevent me from becoming a callback serial killer.
The Oxydol script called for me to purchase the Oxydol, run from the store clutching the enormous box and jump in the passenger seat of a convertible. Before filming the sound man approached me to tape on a microphone. He stood studying my body. I thought he was being fresh. Finally he said, “You gotta clutch that big box next to your chest and jump in that passenger seat. So we should tape this mike where it won’t knock against anything. Would you step over here behind this tree?” Behind a tree? Yes, that’s what he said, right there, in the bright sun, in front of God, the entire crew within hearing distance. He ordered me to lift my skirt. Thank God I wasn’t knock-kneed.
As he finished taping, a tiny green light flashed on from the right (inner side) of my knee cap. My mother was not in show business – so I had never been told about sound men.
After a few hours had passed of me running and jumping, the director called, “Cut! Take ten!” Off I zoomed to the ladies room in my trailer, (yes, on location you get your own trailer). Finishing in the tiny cubicle of a bathroom, I reached for the toilet paper and saw a tiny flashing green light.
My mike was on the entire time. I didn’t want to return to the set. I finally venture out to find the whole crew gathered to clap. My face matched that flashing light – red for green. The commercial’s director whispered, “They didn’t want you to feel bad.”
We didn’t have mobile phones then; we used professional answering services that catered to show business customers. I kept a roll of dimes in my purse (next to a can of pepper spray) to use at pay phones on the street to check messages. If, God forbid, not one person had left a message the Answering Service Lady would never say, “Nobody called. You have nothing – nobody cares!” They would instead announce as though it were miraculous: “You’re all clear.”
Here’s my favorite answering service message; “Your final Thrill is tomorrow at 4 o’clock.”
After a year in New York I had a bank account and moved into a building with elevators (no more walk-ups) and won my first of three Clio awards (the Oscar of commercials). The elevator man knew my face from commercials, and declared, “I’ll bet you get a lot of residue on your work.” He was right. All that “residue” totals the pension I live on today waiting for God to call my life a “wrap,” when I shall arise for my final callback.
I could never have made it through those years without spiritual direction. I had never heard of spiritual direction when I met my Jesuit seat-mate on the plane to Florida for the Oxydol shoot, nor had I ever experienced priests having a sense of humor.
As a struggling actress, I found the Church to be a fortress, a lighthouse, I wondered why I was lucky to get all those commercials, but after each one I found my way to St. Ignatius church on Park Avenue to give thanks. There at St. Ignatius I learned the Ignatian exercises from my seat-mate who always followed his blessing with a joke.
Recently I did some readings on a program with Father Felix Just, SJ, who has a marvelous website devoted to – are you ready? – Jesuit jokes. One of these jokes reminded me of when my “walkup” apartment was robbed or, as the Brits say, “burgled.” The perpetrators actually stole my second hand television set from the eight floor. The people who lived on the first floor had a more expensive TV, so they left mine there and took theirs. I remembered how my seat-mate had advised me on adjusting to the Big Apple: “Don’t worry, you will feel you are just a part of New York. Trust that eventually it will become a part of you.”
And it did become as much a part of me as the green line down the street on St. Patrick’s Day.
by Mary Rose Betten
As a child did you ever get to lie in bed and have a grown up read to you? When I was almost four years old, my mother gave birth to a baby boy, whom my parents named Charles Edward. He died in the hospital soon after birth, and because Mother required time to recover, my dad hired “live-in-help.” The woman who came to help our family was named Millie Henken. She had a deep voice and a thick German accent.
My mother would make retreat weekends in St. Louis at “The Cenacle” (which sounded to a child’s ears like “the cemetery”). I thought she visited with Charles. During those visits, she bought me books about the Saints, most of them martyrs. Millie would read them to me, but skip the parts describing their torture. I planned to devour those passages when I learned to read.
Mother brought me a huge blue book titled “Jesus Our Playmate.” Wow. Imagine chasing butterflies and chatting while picking flowers with Jesus. Millie read it to me so many times, she must have memorized it.
“‘Zee budderfly!’ Jezzus vould call. ‘Hes vings!, Comb, queeklee!’”
By summertime Mother had grown strong and Millie went on vacation. Mother settled beside my bed to read from my blue book. She was a terrible Jesus. She didn’t sound like him at all. Terribly flustered she switched to the book of saints to calm me and read how the men’s tongues were cut out and women martyr’s breasts were cut off.
Mother made jelly, melting wax for a preserver under the lid. If we stayed out of the kitchen till she called us, we each got a warm piece of wax to chew. I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t enjoy the ritual as well as the others until my first communion. Mother told me when Millie lived with us she had gifted us at Christmas with a delicate German, hand-carved Christ child made of wax.
When everyone was asleep I snuck down stairs and devoured Jesus. Well, all but his halo – it was tin. When I made my first communion I told the priest in confession I had eaten Jesus. He knew I had yet to receive the host so he asked me all sorts of questions. I learned to explain my sins in great detail.
Mother had migraine headaches all her life. She lifted her eyebrows as though the furrows in her forehead would hold up her eyebrows. In our country parish church the girls sat on one side, the boys on the other. On the girls’ side was a rendition of the pieta. I loved sitting close to this statue of Mother Mary holding the crucified Jesus, because she looked exactly like my mother when she had a migraine. Mother Mary had taught my Mother to lift her eyebrows to relieve pain. My mother knew Jesus’ mother.
The bogeyman was considered the devil, yet he seemed to sound a lot like my brothers. They never complained about his moaning – only we three girls had that problem.
And as sure as girls wore hats to church, the boys would grab them, and run. They had no idea how to play properly. Standing hatless, I would imagine Jesus calling me in Millie’s soft voice. That’s what the boys had missed – they didn’t know Jesus loved to play. If only Millie could have read to them.
Originally published at Catholic Fiction.net
by Mary Rose Betten
When I started as a standup comic I had only five minutes of a standup routine about being a Bus Stewardess for The Surplus Bus Company: “When you ride with Surplus you ride the best of what’s left.” The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson booked me. They didn’t know I had only five minutes. When you are unknown you appear last on the program. Well, that is if there is any time left you appear.
I stood behind those velvet curtains, Kleenex in both arm pits, a metallic taste in my mouth. The theme song played as Carson announced, “We’re out of time.” I went home, washed my one black dress and came back to wait.
I went on to appear on the Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas show and the definitive big break came when The Dean Martin Comedy Hour booked me to do my original Bus stewardess piece at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, my stellar five minutes would be aired on TV in one week. I spent $200 on postcards to every casting director on the planet.
Minutes before Dean Martin announced my appearance, President Richard M. Nixon came on Television to resign. And that dear friends marked the exact time I decided I’d never do standup comedy again. Nixon’s appearance seemed like God saying: “That’s a wrap – get a day job.”
I grew up surrounded by comedy, in a family of ten children, youngest of three girls and seven brothers. I learned to listen. Good comedy comes from deep listening: while my brothers milked the cows I hid and listened. I shared the bedroom with two older sisters, who bickered constantly. Perfect! Conflict makes good comedy. Lucky for me teasing also makes good comedy. My brothers called me Mary Nose and enjoyed quoting the old rhyme, “Mary Rose sat on a tack. Mary rose.”
When they all left for school my dog Sandy and I would pull my red wagon down the lane to sit under the Big Tree. Solitude is good for comedy, too, because voices get free range in your memory. Animals make good audiences, they don’t criticize. Imitating speech patterns makes dialogue funny. My brothers constantly talked about girls, imitated their voices or their walks.
When I married a theologian, things changed. Three things you don’t make fun of: sex, money and (you guessed it!) religion.
A friend suggested my marriage could be a gold mine: find humor in religion. I wrote When Jesus Laughed, and landed my first of many bookings at the world’s largest Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, California. I studied method acting while I studied scripture and my career as a character actress began.
It’s fascinating the things Jesus said that were funny. Of course it’s humor from a different time and place but Jesus did tell jokes: “It is easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle than to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Okay, ancient time and pace, but that is a joke. And don’t forget scripture says: “Jesus and His apostles went to the wedding feast. The wine failed.”
That too is a joke – were you listening?
Originally published on CatholicFictiion.net