The Great Improviser, or One Blesséd Thing After Another…

I remember watching an improv comedy group with friends in college. Each member of the troupe was a whirlwind of wit and creativity, responding instantly to audience suggestions, random props, and fellow comics’ off-the-cuff reactions.

After more than an hour of nonstop hilarity and laughter, the group took its bows, then the members spoke briefly to the audience about how they do what they do: How they keep the laughs coming at such a breakneck pace when even they aren’t sure what will happen next?

The basic answer was so simple: Say yes, and

Whatever the situation, the idea, the inane detail added by the last castmate as he passes the scene to you, say yes, and build on it. Anything else — a no, a but, a hesitation, a rejection — derails everything. The joy of improv (for both performers and audience, I’ll wager) is in the way that it embraces the unknown and absurd and builds on them, laugh upon laugh, until the entire humorous edifice is revealed and the leader says, “Aaaaand scene!”

Say yes, and build on it. Embrace the situation and move forward. Such a simple trick — but it requires practice. (If you don’t believe me, get two friends and try Three-Headed Broadway Singer.)

It strikes me today that this is good advice for life, as well. This world is tilted, spinning, ridiculous in so many ways, and at times life appears to be, as an old saying goes, “one damned thing after another.” But it’s not. The sequence of events is not damned, but blessed.

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. — Romans 8:28

God, in fact, must be the Great Improviser, to work out  His plan among so many free-willing, fallen creatures who are constantly doing the dead-wrong thing. God’s providence, it seems to me, must be a resounding, eternal, “Yes, and…”

Fr. Mike Schmitz shares great perspective on discerning God’s will for us, in which he reminds us that, even in scripture, when God’s appears to be taking His people by the hands and leading them, still less is known than unknown. In particular, he reminds us that, after being told by the angel Gabriel that she will bear the Son of God, Mary says “Be it done unto me according to your word,” and the very next line in scripture is, “Then the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:28).

Mary is left to improvise: to build upon that yes and each yes after, until the entire astounding edifice is revealed and the Master calls out, “Scene!”

Like Mary, we don’t know what’s coming: what incredible, impossible, unwieldy, absurd situation we may encounter, this moment or the next. But our response matters. In fact — since the universe is beyond our control — our response is all that counts.

It’s so simple, though it takes practice: Step with joy into the unknown. Say yes, and build upon it.

Lightning on the Stone

Blogger’s Note: At the Easter Vigil last night, the Resurrection account was from Matthew. The image of the angel appearing like lightning and sitting upon the stone struck meand Lightning on the Stone seemed like a bluesy spiritual someone ought to try to write. So I did this morning. It’s not quite as raw or ragged as it might be if someone sang it over a blues riff…but I’m satisfied.

In dark we walked to that dark tomb

And darkly dreamt of you

Your broken body sealed in stone

And lost in darkness, too, Lord

And lost in darkness too

In gloom we came to Golgotha

As black gave way to gray

I asked our sister Mary who

Would roll the stone away, Lord

Would roll the stone away

The Skull grinned blue—when like a flash

Of lightning from the Throne

An angel, gleaming white, threw back

And sat upon the stone, Lord

And sat upon the stone

As at the rising of the Sun

The Daystar shares its rays

Just so my face with wonder shone

To hear you had been raised, Lord

To hear you had been raised

The sky above was brilliant blue

As blue as any sea

And we rejoiced to tell that you

Were bound for Galilee, Lord

Were bound for Galilee

The Adjustment Bureau

A young, popular New York City politician suffers an unexpected electoral defeat. Suddenly he finds himself face-to-face with the girl of his dreams – a strange woman he’s never met before – in an unlikely place. Their time is short, the attraction is palpable enough for a sudden, passionate kiss, interrupted by campaign staff. She exits quickly. He has only her first name and these few moments. He delivers the speech of a lifetime, and from the jaws of defeat, snatches superstardom and frontrunner status for the next open Senate seat in New York state.

In a city as vast as this, he could never find this beautiful stranger using only her first name – but chance throws them together on a city bus, and it’s clear this is something special. Too special, in fact. He was not supposed to see her again. A group of grim, dark-suited G-men snatch him from his workplace to inform him: they are with the Adjustment Bureau, and this love affair not in The Plan. Whose plan? The Chairman’s – but you know him by many names.

What follows is a fast-paced, but coherent sci-fi romance that turned out to be the perfect mix for my bride and I – with Matt Damon doing a low-key Bourne, trying to outsmart and outpace adversaries who are nearly (but not quite!) omnipotent and omnipresent, and who are bent on keeping him from what he feels sure is true love. More than once he is ripped abruptly from Emily Blunt’s life, re-finds her, and works to regain her trust, unable to tell her what’s really going on.

It’s a solid, entertaining movie, with some language and sexuality (including two instances of a word neither Jodi or I thought was permitted in PG-13 films). And it’s thought-provoking after the fact: at one point, Damon’s character asks a more sympathetic “adjuster” if they are angels. This is not an idle observation, since the underlying problem in the movie is the problem of free will versus predestination. The film proposes a world in which beings who are less limited and more powerful than humans direct the world according to a grand scheme they themselves do not entirely comprehend. From what little I’ve read, this is in close keeping with Catholic traditions and teachings about angels – except that in the film, the adjusters suggest that they function to override human free will, which, unfettered, produced the Dark Ages and the World Wars, but with their guidance (i.e., free will only with regard to small, day-to-day choices), yields peace, happiness, and productivity. (Hmm…that sounds familiar.)

I don’t believe angels, according to Catholic teachings and belief, have the option of taking free will from us. They operate more subtly and keep the world operating according to plan…but we still choose. We make our beds, and we lie in them.

In the film, the very aggressiveness and implacability of the adjusters seem to increase our hero’s resolve and drive him to his climactic decision and the film’s resolution. It’s almost as if the adjusters themselves are off-plan…and as if that, in fact, is part of the plan.

Angels Addendum

In my earlier “book report” on Angels and Their Mission According to the Church Fathers, I indicated I could not find a specific passage that stated that angels are not properly understood as supernatural. The reason I couldn’t find that passage is because it’s in another book. Completely coincidentally, I had begun at the same time a section on angels in My Way of Life, which is the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, simplified for mere mortal readers. The passage (which is complemented by The Angels and Their Mission) reads as follows:

Because the angels are bodiless creatures, pure spirits, it is too often concluded that they are supernatural beings; they are not, God is the only supernatural being. The angels are natural beings, they belong in, and, indeed, dominate our world. They are creatures as natural as oaks, or sunsets, or birds, or men. To call them supernatural because they are not like ourselves is a part of that provincial pride by which a man puts human nature at the peak of the universe, primarily because he himself is a man.”

A couple observations:

  • My Way of Life is a lovely pocket-size volume, and the section on Angels and the introduction (which was referenced near the end of last year’s holiday letter) alone make it worth the read.
  • However, as you can see from the sentences above, the simplified Summa is not a without complexity. It has, for the moment, made me content to leave the full-blown Summa on the shelf.

Someday, perhaps. By the way, my own copy of The Angels and Their Mission arrived yesterday, which means it is available for lending.

Book Break: The Angels and Their Mission

A group of friends and I had just finished watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose with our priests, Fr. Richards and Fr. Meyers, and Fr. Richards assigned me a book report. We were in the middle of a fascinating discussion about what the Catholic Church actually believes about the Devil, possession, and exorcism, and I asked the following question(s): If the Book of Revelation reveals to us that the Devil doesn’t win, why does he bother trying? Can he hope to change the outcome? Can the Devil hope at all?

The short answer was a supposition: that the Devil, being consumed with his own pride and envy, is likely so inwardly focused that it doesn’t matter what God does or what scripture reveals. The longer response concerned ancient teachings about the heirarchy of angels in heaven and an inverted but parallel heirarchy of fallen angels in hell — Father Meyers spoke to this topic, and I must’ve responded positively, because Fr. Richards then said, “I don’t know as much about this topic, but I have a book that was given to me to read — since you’re interested, why don’t you borrow it…then you can summarize it for me.” He went to his office and retrieved the book. “So that about that report…should I expect it in a few weeks?”

The book was The Angels and Their Mission According to the Church Fathers by the theologian Jean Danielou, first published in Belgium in 1953. Father’s edition is a thin hardcover English version from the 1950s. At 114 pages, it is a quick read, though not always easy; it assumes a familiarity with who (and when) the Church fathers were, and the ability to untangle English translations of ancient writings. I’m sure much of it went over my head.

That said, it is organized very simply, which is helpful with a largely unfamiliar topic. Each chapter addresses the Church’s age-old beliefs about angels with regard to a specific topic: The Angels and the Law, The Angels and the World Religion, The Angels of the Nativity…all the way to The Angels and Death and The Angels and the Second Coming (bringing us full circle, back to our discussion). Each chapter explains the role of angels with regard to that topic, citing scriptural references and ancient writings dating to the Middle Ages, the Early Church, and even ancient Jewish traditions. And while some of the passages and references may have been beyond me at this point, the structure made it easy to pick up the main points of each chapter.

The introduction is worth a read: it begins by sagely acknowledging that angels may be regarded as an odd topic for an entire book, however brief, and admitting that we live in a world in which many people “deny the personal character of celestial spirits.” It then goes on to touch upon a few of the mistakes people make when trying to make sense of angels. Don’t skip it, even if it doesn’t all sink in.

Three primary points stuck with me from the body of the book:

  • Angels ought not be regarded as supernatural, but as spiritual. This point may not have been explicit in the book (that’s my way of saying I can’t find the passage again), but it was certainly underscored by it — just because we can’t see angels doesn’t make them supernatural; it just means they are spiritual, and not corporal. Angels are created beings, created for a purpose, just like us. Their existence is natural because it comes from God and is sustained by God. This is reassuring, somehow, for someone who finds the supernatural nerve-wracking.
  • Angels are extraordinarily active in our world. The Church fathers believed that angels don’t only show up on the scene to deliver extraordinary news (St. Gabriel), to do battle with evil (St. Michael), or to assist in deliverance (St. Raphael) — they oversee the laws and order of the universe and nature; they minister to each nation and to each individual, working to draw them nearer to God and the Truth (with widely varying results; we do, after all, have free will); and they are constantly working with the Trinity to bring God’s plan for the world to fruition.
  • Angels long for that fruition of God’s plan, just like we do. Based in part on the first bullet, although angels are often closer to God than we are, they are not one with God and do not know His mind. They are amazed to see it unfold (God becomes man!?), and, based in part on the second bullet, they are working hard, like us, and long for the joy and peace and rest promised in the end.

As I read back over this post, my skeptical streak asks, “Do you really buy all this?” While I struggle answering that question with an unqualified yes, I can truthfully say, “More and more every day.”

One more thing: I found an inexpensive copy of this book on eBay — should be here today or early next week, if you want to borrow it. (Or perhaps, after he reads this, Fr. Richards will loan you his.)