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Sophie Masson
The author's website, with information about her life, her books, and essays on various topics.

Quadrant Magazine
Australia's leading general intellectual journal of ideas, literature, poetry and historical and political debate.

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THE EYES OF THE ICON

Mel Gibson, that long-haired young man who had been my image of a Jesus utterly unlike my father's haunting icon, now finds himself at the centre of a vast and difficult controversy because of his burning desire to depict the passion he was brought up with.

Photo Credit: Zuma Press

In these films [Signs and We were Soldiers], but especially in a new movie, a monumentally risky project called The Passion, which he co-wrote and is currently directing in and around Rome, [Mel] Gibson appears increasingly driven to express a theology only hinted at in his previous work. That theology is a strain of Catholicism rooted in the dictates of a sixteenth-century papal council and nurtured by a splinter group of conspiracy-minded Catholics, mystics, monarchists and disaffected conservatives—including a seminary dropout and rabble-rousing theologist who also happens to be Mel Gibson's father ...

... Perhaps nothing Gibson has done will serve as a more public announcement of his faith and worldview than the project he's now completing in Rome. The Passion is a graphic depiction of the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ, based on biblical accounts and the writings of two mystic nuns. Gibson is returning to the director's chair for the first time since Braveheart in 1995, but he will not appear on screen. There will not, in fact, be any big stars. Nor will there be subtitles, which might prove a challenge for many moviegoers, since the actors will speak only Aramaic and Latin. Gibson has said that he hopes to depict Christ's ordeal using "filmic storytelling" techniques that will make the understanding of dialogue unnecessary.
- Christopher Noxon, New York Times, March 9, 2003

The sorrow in Jesus' eyes was mixed with a certainty of mission. This was passion: the fire of inner conviction, despite dreadful ordeals. And religion to me lived in that expression.
Three icons hung on my parents' bedroom walls when I was a child. Two were Russian, one Greek. The Greek one was my favourite. It depicted St George and the Dragon, the painting on the wood overlaid by a sheet of beaten, carved silver metal, so that George was clothed in armour, and the dragon in shining scales. Saints' stories, in general, didn't attract me; the romantic, thrill-seeking, dreamy child that I was vastly preferred stories of knights and ladies, wizards and fairies. I found many of the saints either dull or weird; but St George, as he was represented on the icon, was different. He was like a knight, slaying a monstrous beast; he could be tied in to the stories I loved, of Arthur fighting monsters, of Perseus slaying the dragon. This icon appealed to my father, too, though my mother thought it overdone and veering dangerously close to the fantasy she rejected.

The Russian icons, however, were different. Looking at George might conjure up exciting, frightening images of battle, of clashing sword on scale, of fire-breathing (and what about the horse, I always wondered—how did he escape being frizzled alive? Did George's holiness magically protect him too?) but looking at the other two was quite a different experience, uncomfortable and haunting. Both had been painted by an exiled Russian artist my father had come to know, a man who suffered greatly from the loss of his homeland, and he had rendered them in the brooding, uncompromisingly intimate yet stylised manner of the Byzantine-influenced Eastern Orthodox style. One of the icons was of a pensive Virgin Mary, her cheek against that of her infant child; the other, of Jesus as a man. Highly emotional depictions, they were also restrained. Mary's hair was completely hidden under her veil, her great dark eyes and those of her thin child somewhere in the middle distance beyond us, as if contemplating what must happen to her beloved son. The manhood portrait of a dark-eyed, wavy-haired, plainly-dressed Jesus was of him both as man and as Christ: we were told it was of him just before his Passion, before his trial, torture and death. This was reinforced by the fact that every Palm Sunday, my father would drape a blessed palm frond over the icon, where it would stay, quietly drying out, till the next Palm Sunday.

It was especially this icon's eyes that prickled under my skin, and made me scurry quickly out of the room if ever I was sent there on an errand. Those eyes spoke. They were alive, they looked deep into you, their gaze followed you around the room and out of it. As a child, I found it difficult to say what expression was in those eyes, though I knew it was neither joy nor anything cheerful. All I knew was that I wanted to get away from their scrutiny. Later, I thought it was suffering that lay in those eyes, and yet also a charismatic certainty. The sorrow in Mary's eyes was mixed with loving pride; but the sorrow in Jesus' was mixed with a certainty of mission. This was passion: the fire of inner conviction, despite dreadful ordeals. And religion to me lived in that expression.

Sometimes, if one of us children was suspected of telling a lie, my father would take that child by the hand, stand him or her in front of the icon of Jesus, and say, "There. Now, look at Him and repeat what you said." He genuinely could not believe that anyone could stare into those eyes and tell a lie. My mother, more cynical, would watch the culprit carefully, able to detect, just by looking at them (mysteriously, it seemed to me then), whether they were telling the truth. As a miracle-believing child, I found it hard indeed to lie, looking into those eyes; in the arrogance of adolescence, I turned away from that expression. Still, even so, it was hard not to flinch, for those eyes seemed already to know that you were going to persist in your lie, to look at you not angrily or even with judgment; just with that inner, fiery courage, that sorrow, and also the endless knowledge of just what humans were capable of.

For my father, the thought of death constantly validates life, the grand rejection of compromise is what moves him.
Everyone over the centuries who has ever thought about him has had their own image of Jesus the man: as reformer or zealot, lord or rebel, epitome of love or fierce warrior, mystic or clear-eyed storyteller, heretic or defender of tradition. None of these by themselves tells the whole story, of course; what they express is more individual temperament and cultural temper. Over the centuries, the church has attempted to equalise the portrayal of Jesus, bringing in many complexities together in a full portrait. Not all attempts to do this have succeeded however; the danger is of making him either impossibly bland, or confusingly contradictory. Besides, the experience of Christianity is not just an institutional one, but a deeply personal and intimate one. It is inevitable that one's experience and feelings about Jesus will be coloured by personal experience; and for me, that started very early in childhood.

Part of the haunting aspect of the icon's eyes was that I knew it also represented my father's religion, dominated by a seeking, questioning intelligence and a fierce passion. My parents' bookshelves were lined with books on all sorts of aspects of religion, especially on heresies. The heretic is a person who both questions and seeks certainty; whose passionate attachment to their own emotional truth leads them into great conflict with those of others. But the heretic's search for truth and questioning of orthodox certainties becomes part of their inner conviction.

My father, a fervent Catholic, has also always been very interested in the fringe, the esoteric, in short, the heretic. Not for him the calm certainties of jogging along with the mainstream church; restlessly curious and questioning, fearful that hope was in fact hopeless, he constantly sought certainty, even if it was of a negative kind. On his desk, in a velvet-lined box, rested an ancient crucifix on which an ivory Jesus hung. Nothing startling about that; except that the suffering Man's arms were pointing almost directly upwards, making their embrace very narrow. It was a Jansenist crucifix, demonstrating through gesture their notion that only a small proportion of people would be saved.

A keen awareness of the evil and suffering in the world made my father, whose childhood had been both very privileged and very tormented, haunted by that capacity for inhumanity, and the infliction of pain, a capacity he could only ever talk about emotionally, passionately, frighteningly even. It had shattered his childhood and led him to become, in a sense, an exile. It predisposed him to fear that he was a heretic at heart, and yet to glory in that. For him, what resonated most clearly was the story of hopeless causes, of fierce courage and certainty crushed by a greater power.

This was one of the reasons, too, why for a long time he was interested in that rather narrow version of Christianity, the religion of the Cathars. Both as a Southern Frenchman and an emotional seeker, the story of the Cathars moved him to tears, and to long hours of study, long before it became fashionable. But it was also their central tenetthat the world was the creation of the Devil, not of God, and that all of us were exiled spirits yearning for our true home in heaven, that our flesh only imprisoned us in evil and fearthat resonated emotionally with him. (Incidentally, it has always seemed strange to me that modern New Agers and others are attracted to Catharism, with its uncompromising rejection of our world. Perhaps they just don't know, and imagine it's all just about some vague airy-fairy feel-good thought, a kind of precursor to their own beliefs, crushed by a wicked Catholic establishment.)

The crusade against the Cathars was a terrible thing, which led to scenes of the utmost brutality and cruelty, where the most hideous things were done in the name of Godon the Cathar side as well as that of the crusaders, incidentally, despite modern perceptions. It was to be a particularly bloody and protracted civil war, from which rich Occitania emerged beggared and humbled. It led, too, to the building of eyrie-like castles on the very edges of abysses, to long resentments, long memories. Including the long memory of my father. There is a picture, in my mind, of an impossibly long, steep path up a bleak peak rising Golgotha—like above a fold of green hills. I am the only one walking up with my father; my mother and the younger children have stayed below. Dad walks quickly, his face taut with the things he has read about, the hideous things that happened here, at Montsegur, the Cathars' last stronghold. Here, 211 people, men, women and children, were burnt to death in the beautiful flowery meadows that stretch under the ancient crag.

Later, this place would become world-famous, people travelling from all over the globe to see it. But for now, interest in Catharism is a fringe thing, a harking back to a regional, religious past no one rational and modern wants to know about. My father and I reach the top of the crag. The old fortress, gutted, but its walls almost intact, sits serenely in the wind, the beauty of its surroundings contrasting oddly with our knowledge that it is a graveyard. Dad stands in the citadel silently, and I walk amidst the broken stones and uneven earthen floors that is all the fury of the crusaders left of this once-impregnable place. The people who had lived here, who had held out so desperately, were offered mercy if they converted back to Catholicism, but stiff-necked, most refused, and marched to their fiery deaths with terrifying pride and rectitude.

The changes brought about by Vatican II hurt my parents deeply. The passions of religion were not strong in most people we knew, but in the Latin Mass Society, they burned white-hot.
I was moved by this place, by the sorrowful and fearful knowledge that people would choose death over life. I loved life myself, for me the world was beautiful and rich and filled with hope and thrill, but I still unconsciously understood how such a death was possible. Because I knew that for my father, it was all very real. He could see himself being led out to the stake, or fighting to the death. For him, the thought of death constantly validates life, the grand rejection of compromise is what moves him. There is a certain contempt in his voice as he talks of the Protestant Henry IV blithely giving up his religion to become a Catholic, making the famous statement that "Paris is worth a Mass" (although, paradoxically, there is admiration for the king's peasant pragmatism and cunning). The Cathars—grand, doomed, misreading the temper of their timesare romantic figures for him, particularly when study of them is such a fringe thing.

Later, he is to disdain them; when study of them has deepened, after Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie's famous Montaillou is published, bringing the Cathars to hundreds of thousands of people, awakening postmodern interest in their doctrines and way of life. Now, Catharism has become, like regionalism, a respectable study and hobby-horse, and he rejects it.

My mother never had much patience with the Cathars; much more orthodox, less wildly emotional in her Catholicism than my father, she is also much more suspicious, too, of the romantic rejection of compromise. The romantic and the grand often led to hideous excesses: wasn't that one of the lessons of history? She argued with him over the Cathars' doctrine, with its uncompromising and unpleasant rejection of the earth and the body, and over his fear that the world really was one only of evil and suffering. For her, the eyes of the icon were painted eyes, an expression in paint of the artist's faith. She shared his faith, if not his Russian Orthodoxy; but she set no store on the power of the icon itself. Romantic grandeur would demand that a glimpse into those eyes set off instant, life-transforming remorse; realistic balance knew that such a reaction might occur, yet without any real force.

She did not trust my own reaction to it, my emotional response to those eyes. It was like the tremors of emotion induced by ceremony, magnificent music, beautiful words; very real, and yet perhaps not enough to sustain a faith. That was my problem, she said; the fact that I was moved by the music, the words, the eyes of the icon; that at such moments, I felt the breath of God, as I did when contemplating the worldfor in my fortunate childhood, the atmosphere of love that surrounded me, and a much more hopeful nature, I felt a benevolent, not malevolent world, even if I knew malevolence was real.

The image of Jesus in the Bible was one that filled me with admiration and wariness, in equal measure. We knew the Gospels well, and indeed I read all the Bible as a child. Attuned to story, I loved the stories of the Old Testament particularly, but also Jesus' parables, and the story of his Passion moved me greatly. But I was afraid also of that charismatic certainty, that wild passion, that fierce intelligence and contradictory wisdom that is so characteristic of the man we glimpse in the Gospels. I retreated from its uncompromising nature, from the terrible knowledge of hideous suffering, of hopeless causes, of the inhumanity which could not be escaped.

It was inevitable that, individually and together, my parents should reach a decision which saw them marginalised still further in religious terms. The changes brought about by Vatican II hurt them deeply, though for a time they tried to live with it. It was not just the abandonment of the beloved Latin Mass, the banalisation of ritual, but what it showed, deeply, about what they saw as a radical change of heart in the Catholic Church. They felt the church had betrayed them and itself; had, in an attempt at staving off secular hostility, caved in to a world that only sought its destruction. The shock of this betrayal hit them in different ways. My mother felt abandoned by the church hierarchy; my father, less respectful of authority, was furious that they should thus dare, unilaterally and without consultation with their own congregations, to change what he deeply valuedthat strong sense of sacrifice, suffering and transformation at the heart of the old words of the Mass.

I drew rebellious pictures of a bearded, long-haired, bright-eyed young man who bore marked resemblance to one of the Gibson boys, handsome, long-haired, quiet Mel.
For a time, they tried to discuss this directly with the church, sending densely argued and sometimes arrogantly firm letters to bishops and priests. To my horror, they also challenged religious teachers at our schools, both lay people and nuns. To no avail; they were told in no uncertain (and sometimes blistering) words to be quiet and accept, that if they were true Catholics they must submit to papal decisions, no matter what they thought or felt. One or two clergy even made the mistake of calling my father a heretic, a charge he both expected and feared. Such a reaction seemed almost calculated to inspire fear; a threat of persecution, of excommunication, hung heavy in the air.

It has been the unfortunate tendency of some in the church to deal with "heretics" by confronting them head on, without indulgence, understanding or even psychologically wise tactics, and for people like my father and other questioners of the decisions of the church, it inevitably fed a sense of persecution which was not altogether paranoid. To be fair, however, to the recipients of my parents', particularly my father's challenges, Dad's attitude was utterly uncompromising. He turned the charge of heresy back on the mainstream church, and the result was to be foreseen.

So one Sunday, instead of walking to our local church as usual, we drove some distance to a most unromantic, most unatmospheric community hall, where a Latin Mass was being celebrated. On the way home, my parents discussed the whole thing, passionately, excitedly, as if new heart had been put into them, while, in the back of the car, my heart sank. No more excuses for missing Mass; this declaration of defiance, this celebration of a refusing-to-die past, boded ill for us children who wanted to be like everyone else. We went to a Catholic school; yet we were known to the nuns to be the children of heretics who had rejected the Pope's rulings. We wanted to be part of seventies culture, yet we were forced to go back into an ancient past because of our stiff-necked parents. The passions of religion were not strong in most people we knew, but in the Latin Mass Society, which grew out of such community masses, they burned white-hot.

The Latin Mass Society was made up of a collection of heterogenous people whose only common link was their fierce passion for their religion, their determination to defend it, their certainty that while others might call them the heretics, they were actually preserving the truth. Mavericks all, natural rebels yet rebels defending tradition, not against it, they were from all walks of life, all kinds of ethnic origins, all sorts of spiritual bents: warriors and mystics, gentle souls and conspiracy theorists, aesthetes and those of more simple tastes, excited types and ironic jokers. The priest who led the community was a man both quiet and fierce, with dreamy eyes that focused sharply during the Mass, whose experience of Jesus was absolutely overwhelming, and expressed utterly in the words of the Mass, enabling him to withstand immense pressures: for if lay people were pressured, so much more were clergy who went against church directives.

Very little was spared in this fight; religious and social allegations were levelled by both sides in a dirty war indeed. It was not a simple matter of black and white, either, though one was always enjoined to take sides; and for someone like me, always attempting to keep a balance, to mediate, to compromise, it became almost unbearably difficult. It ended up vaccinating me against religious extremism, but also, through family love and loyalty, making me painfully aware that religion was a real, important, emotional truth that wouldn't just go away because secularists wished it so. Or that questioning would ever cease, because authorities wished it so.

My father, who at work juggled figures constantly, despite a professed hatred for math, became the treasurer of the Latin Mass Society, and another member, a fiery, red-headed Irish-American named Hutton Gibson became its secretary. Hutton and my father are of a similar passionate temperament, which sometimes meant they agreed, sometimes argued bitterly: both larger-than-life figures whose complicated characters dominated their families. The late Anne Gibson and my own mother were both calming influences on their emotional husbands, and the tribes of Gibson and Masson children followed along willy-nilly, whether willingly or not.

By this time, I was in my late teens, filled with fire myself, but an undirected fire, made up of the thrill of potential romantic passion and the fire of creation, for I was writing, writing, writing. In that space, I could feel very close to God, in a way that, speechless in front of his passion, I could not explain to my father, who, not understanding, would have labelled me a pagan, or a pantheist. (Being called a heretic does not predispose you to sympathise with heretics of a different bent!)

These days many people, especially the younger ones, in the Latin Mass movement are moving back closer to the church.
Jesus was still an important figure to me, but I had rebelled completely against my father's interpretation. This was the seventies, and the most resonant image of Jesus for many young people was the gentle, big-hearted rebel. On Good Fridays, which was the day in the year most dominated by the experience of Jesus' suffering, we fasted and went to an emotional Mass where, just before 3 p.m. the priest would call out the last words Jesus cried out in his suffering: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" And then, he would whisper, "Into your hands I commend my spirit." And then came the evocation of Jesus' death. No matter how often I'd heard it, it was always an intensely powerful moment, which sent shivers up my spine—the combination of wild revolt and fear, followed by that astonishing resignation.

But back home, I drew rebellious pictures of a bearded, long-haired, bright-eyed young man who bore marked resemblance to one of the Gibson boys, handsome, long-haired, quiet Mel. I would look at the dark, difficult Jesus of the icon, and think, "I don't want to die early just for some cause. You don't have anything to say to me." I would refashion my image of the Messiah, I would reject my father's religion, I questioned its irksome restrictions. Why should I, because I was female, have to cover my head in Latin Mass, and not the men? Why should God extend his blessing to only a small section of the population?

Why did faith always mean you had to be prepared to fight, if not to the death, then certainly to a standstill? Fighting against the papacy held no interest for me at all; the sometimes bizarre theories that were aired by some Latin Mass Society members made me prickle with embarrassment. I irked my parents with questions, with challenges, but most of all with a mask of carefully cultivated indifference that I knew would hurt them the most. It was the only way I could protect myself from the burning of the passion that burns so hotly in them. Yet still the eyes of the icon haunted me, and will always continue to do so.

Today, the understanding of that passion burns deeply in me, the feeling of what religion actually is, for those who fight for it, and in its name. Though I do not share my parents' practices and many of their beliefs, my understanding of the Latin Mass movement is inevitably bound up with my love for and loyalty to them. People who see religion only as sociology, as politics, an intellectual thing, or an irrelevance, who have never been exposed to the vast, extraordinary, searing emotional and spiritual power born of human suffering and passion, may very well misunderstand or misinterpret such a passion.

Critics from outside the Catholic Church have tended to focus on the political aspects of some people in the movement; critics from within the church have run a double campaign, accusing the movement of heresy on the one hand, and tying it into anti-Semitism on the other. That is so in some cases, but not in others. There are all kinds of people in the movement. Some are anti-Semitic; others are vehemently opposed to that murderous old cancer of the soul. Some do play politics with their religion, just as some in mainstream religion do. Others avoid all political notions.

These days, too, what with many in the Catholic hierarchy quietly realising some of the mistakes that were made by Vatican II, especially the arrogance of unilaterally taking away the cherished Mass, many people, especially the younger ones, in the Latin Mass movement are moving back closer to the church. The Pope's recent restoration of the ancient rite may mean that most of what had become the beginnings of a full-blown separate church (complete with its own break-away movements!) will quietly reintegrate with Rome.

But some people, like my father, never will; thoroughly set now in their pride and hurt, driven still by the dark and fiery passion that animated them and drove them to challenge the church they had once loved, they have taken on the mantle of heretic while throwing it at the papacy. And it is strange to see how such a drama is played out in public now. For that long-haired young man who had been my image of a Jesus utterly unlike my father's haunting icon now finds himself at the centre of a vast and difficult controversy, because of his burning desire to depict the passion he was brought up with. The labelling of Mel Gibson as a heretic in a press which in general attacks the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church relentlessly and ruthlessly is a strange irony indeed.

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May 11, 2004

SOPHIE MASSON has published numerous novels for adults, young adults and children, and writes regularly for newspapers and other publications in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Italy and Germany. Her most recent novel is "The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare."

This article is reprinted with permission from Quadrant Magazine, Volume XLVII Number 10, October 2003. All rights reserved.

Photo Credit: Zuma Press.

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READER COMMENTS
06.28.04   uberminch says:
it is true that love is the universal communication of the Church. however, it is the ancient and established tradition to pray the mass and Divine Liturgy in a ritual language. in the west it has been Latin, and in the Eastern Catholic rites (numerous) a variety including aramaic and antique Greek. in Judaism too Hebrew was the sacred language reserved for prayer. it is liturgy in the vernacular that is an innovation, the idea that the sacred liturgy should be increasingly indistinguishable from secular life.

05.26.04   alexander caughey says:
Hi Jonathan and Siena. Yes, I do mean exactly this, that the Logos is our highest concept of love and it is through our willingness to accept His Love of us as our food for returning that love back to Him by loving all He loves.

05.25.04   Jonathan Kinsman says:
Siena,I think our universal language is in our rituals and traditions, taken from many cultures over many centuries.Love as a language would work, if by love Alex means the Logos.Jonathan

05.21.04   alexander caughey says:
The Catholic Church has always maintained that its universal language of communicating with God's creation, is love. To the best of my knowledge the language of love was also used by Christ. What is good enough for God and His Catholic Church, is more than sufficient for me.

05.20.04   Siena says:
Shortly after seeing The Passion of the Christ someone asked me, "Does seeing this movie make you want to learn more about Judaism?" I replied, "No. It makes me want to learn more about Mel Gibson's spirituality & the Latin Mass." I very much enjoyed this article. It gave me a glimpse at what I was looking for after seeing The Passion. In a later conversation a friend said something quite interesting... "If we belong to the Catholic (universal) Church, shouldn't we have a universal language?" Hmmm... That would be nice.

05.17.04   Annabella says:
Sophie Masson gives us something more than a simplistic celebrity or culture war profile; rather, she does a tremendous service by giving us a beautifully written, in-depth, honest, and empathetic view of the community and world-view that shaped Mel Gibson's personality and religious imagination, a world that has all too often been caricatured by the media in simplistic and hostile ways. Anyone who wants to gain insight into Mel the artist and religious controversialist shoud read this essay.

05.17.04   metameta says:
Disappointing. Didn't really have a lot to do with Gibson or The Passion except tangentially.It is interesting to read about the sense of betrayal felt by tranditionalists though.

05.11.04   Godspy says:
Mel Gibson, that long-haired young man who had been my image of a Jesus utterly unlike my father's haunting icon, now finds himself at the centre of a vast and difficult controversy because of his burning desire to depict the passion he was brought up with.

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