Even more than New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, indeed all of the Easter season, makes me want to launch into new beginnings. We spend so much time in tombs of our own making. One of the tombs that encloses me is my propensity to overwork. In those periods, I forget to keep in touch with the people who are important to me. I don’t eat properly or get enough rest. Another of my tombs is my quick temper. I can pick for months at the emotional scab of some perceived slight, or insult or injustice I think I’ve suffered. The time I spend feeding my anger is simply a waste of precious moments when I could be enjoying quiet time my husband, writing a poem, or simply staring up at the moon.
I like to imagine myself as Lazarus, called by Jesus from the tomb. I would tear away the burial cloths that bind my feet from progressing on to goals that are important to me. I imagine removing the strips that blind my eyes from seeing the wonder, the mystery that is all around me.
The Jesuit writer Anthony de Mello writes that most people, without even knowing it, sleepwalk through life. “They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep, without ever waking up,” he said. “They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing we call human existence.”
These next few weeks, as the earth begins to once again awaken, as the crocuses and violets burst out of the ground and green shoots begin appearing on the trees, can we too wake up, and rediscover what really matters in our lives?
One of the few perks of being a member of the broadcast journalists’ union is that every year we get to vote on the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Often the films and performers nominated for SAG Awards go on the Academy Award nominations.
Some years, the films nominated are so violent, depressing or uninteresting I can’t get through them all. This year was different. Nearly every one of the films was exceptional. I kept discovering threads of Benedictine monastic spirituality, especially in our need for community, for self-forgiveness, and the necessity of forgiving others.
“The Shape of Water” was the first of the awards-nominated films I watched. Normally I don’t care for fantasy movies or science fiction. I was drawn to this film not so much for the story, but the fact that it features Richard Jenkins, an actor who graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University, near where I live in central Illinois. I had the chance to interview him about his best supporting actor awards nominations for the National Public Radio station I work for in central Illinois.
Jenkins told me he was immediately drawn to Giles, the character he plays – a closeted gay man in the early 1960s. Giles, he pointed out, formed part of a group of people at that time we as a society chose not to see. The film is less about plot than it is about the relationships that form between a collection of people no one seems to truly see.
Jenkins’ character Giles is best friends with his neighbor Eliza, who is mute. Eliza’s only other friend is Zelda, an African American co-worker at the top-secret government facility where they both mop floors and clean the bathrooms. Eliza and Zelda are so “invisible” to the other people that work at the facility that in one telling scene, an agent enters the men’s room while they are cleaning and proceeds to urinate as if these two women aren’t even there.
The facility houses a “secret.” A sea creature that is part-amphibian, part human is held in captivity there so government scientists can “study” it. Translated: so they can torture it to see how much physical abuse it can take. Over the course of the movie, Eliza develops a bond with the sea creature, sneaking into the room where it is chained to leave it hard-boiled eggs and share other bits of her lunch.
In a beautiful scene, Eliza uses sign language to tell Giles she’s plotting to set free the sea creature. She asks for his help.
“He’s all alone,” she says.
“So what, we’re all alone,” Giles retorts, rejecting Eliza’s plan as preposterous.
“I move my mouth like him, but I make no sound,” Eliza signs. “What does that make me? When he looks at me he does not know what I lack or how I’m incomplete. He sees me as I am.”
An encounter Giles has soon brings him to a realization of his own loneliness, his own need to be truly seen. He’s been infatuated with a waiter at a coffee shop he frequents and daydreams about striking up a romance with the man. When finally gets up the courage to place his hand on the man’s arm, he is summarily rejected. The waiter tells him to never return to the coffee shop, because it’s a “family restaurant” and that Giles and his “kind” aren’t welcome.
That evening, Giles tells Eliza, “I have no one. You are the only person I can talk to. Whatever this thing is (meaning the sea creature), you need it. So tell me what to do.”
This community of “misfits,” Eliza, Giles and Zelda, proceed with their plan to spring the sea creature. In the end, it is the creature who seems more human than most of the other “humans” in the film.
“The Shape of Water” is not only about our human need for bonding, for linking arms with others and the power of community. It reminds us of our Benedictine call to see – truly see -- each being as a valued expression of God.
Some of these same themes emerge in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri.” The film features brilliant performances by an ensemble cast headed by Frances McDormand. At first glance, it’s a bit far-fetched to think this story line would evoke Benedictine values. It centers on Mildred, a mother whose grief over her daughter’s rape and murder leads her to seek revenge against the small-town police department she believes bungled the investigation into her daughter’s killer.
So many of the characters seem bent on settling scores, you feel certain this can’t lead to anything good. Through a number of twists, these various quests for revenge paradoxically turn into springboards for forgiveness and personal transformation.
As the plot progresses, Dixon, the town’s most vicious police officer, is badly burned in a fire set to extract revenge against the police department. The officer ends up in the same hospital room as Welby, a young man whom a few days earlier he had brutally beaten and thrown out of a second floor window. At one point, the badly injured young man limps over to the bed of his roommate, whose face is obscured by bandages. Not knowing it’s the officer who attacked him, Welby asks Dixon if he would like a glass of water.
The officer recognizes the young man and mumbles, “I’m sorry I threw you out the window.”
With that Welby realizes the identify of his roommate and stalks off. You suspect he is going to return any minute to Dixon’s bedside and smash a glass into his face. Instead, Welby continues staring at the officer lying helpless in his bed.
He eventually returns to the bedside, carrying a glass. You suspect he’ll smash it in Dixon’s face. Instead, Welby sets it down to where Dixon can reach it. He has placed a straw in the glass to make it easier for the officer to take a sip.
It is a beautiful moment where each man recognizes the vulnerability of the other and decides to forgive. It made me think of people in my life I felt have hurt me, in far less serious ways. Would I have the hospitality of heart to respond with compassion if I saw that they needed my help?
I’ll mention just one other film. It might be my favorite of all. “Mudbound” is the story of two Mississippi families – one black, the other white – whose sons return from fighting in World War II to confront the racism that the war effort failed to erase at home. Klansmen end up brutally beating the returning African American solider, and that is not all. They silence his efforts at claiming his rights. They cut out his tongue.
In a scene that prompts you to hold your breath, the soldier’s father is called upon to help lower the casket of one of the Klansmen he suspects participated in the attack on his son. There is a long pause as the camera studies the face of the grieving father and his wife, played brilliantly by best supporting actress nominee Mary J. Blige. You really don’t know what the father is going to do. Then you see a slight nod of the head by his wife. The father climbs out of the wagon he’s been driving, helps lower the casket and says a prayer over the body, albeit one that can have a double meaning.
“Three Billboards” likewise explores the bounds of our capacity for forgiveness. In still another scene, Frances McDormand’s Mildred is humiliated in a restaurant by her ex-husband while she is out on a date with another man. She walks over to the ex-husband’s table where he is having dinner with his teenage girlfriend. But first she picks up the wine bottle on her table. You figure she is either going to dump the wine on her husband or else smash the bottle against head.
The ex-husband’s girlfriend, a rather breezy, empty-headed 19-year-old, manages to diffuse the situation. “All this anger, it just begets more anger,” she blurts out. “I read it on a bookmark.”
Even grief-hardened Frances McDormand gets the irony. She sets down the bottle on the table.
“Be nice to her, Charlie,” she says to her ex-husband, walking away. “Get it?”As students of St. Benedict’s Rule, we too get the lessons of these wonderful films. Still, it’s good to be reminded of them. Happy viewing!
As we contemplate the passion of Jesus today, we confront one of the most confounding aspects of human existence – the meaning of suffering. No one seeks out suffering. It rips us out of our complacency. It forces us to take a hard look at ourselves. How do we reconcile our personal suffering and the suffering of the world with a loving, merciful God?
The ancient Greeks saw suffering as a path to wisdom. The poet Aeschylus wrote, “Even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until despite ourselves wisdom comes, by the awful grace of God.” The passion of Jesus spurs us to look deeper. Like Jesus, all of us at some point experience unjust humiliation, false accusation and physical suffering -- though few are called to make the life-giving sacrifice he did. But suffering is not the end of his story. Resurrection is. New life is. When we embrace suffering, we crack open a space in our hearts for change, for growth, for greater strength and wisdom, and ultimately new life. One of my mentors, the poet Marie Howe, often would say, “The wounded have to become the healers.” Can we have the courage to use our past wounds to help heal ourselves and others?