“Save us from the time of trial” –– Climate Change as Apocalypse

The angel dictates a word of hope and promise to St. John: “Blessed are those who are invited to the feast of the Lamb.” (Rev 19)

 The humanist/scholar became quite emotional in conceiving of the world devoid of human beings, which was a possibility brought on by one disaster or another, due, it must be said, to our own actions. This would be the worst thing he could imagine––worlds devoid of human beings, even if these worlds were populated by other intelligent and enterprising life forms.

–– Joy Williams, Ninety-Nine Stories of God

 What have you got to worry about? We’re only adrift in an open sea with a drunken captain and an engine that’s liable to explode at any moment.

–– Humphrey Bogart in Beat the Devil

 

The end is near! The world as we know it is on the verge of extinction, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.[i]But where is the sense of collective alarm? Where is the will to act? Our house is burning down, but instead of shouting “Fire!” and grabbing some hoses, we carry on as usual, unable to muster a sense of emergency. Perhaps we are just too exhausted by the endless stream of horrors under Republican rule, from children’s prison camps to the spread of American fascism, to have any bandwidth left to address the environmental apocalypse.

As columnist Leonard Pitts suggests,

“So then you read where the planet is melting, dire results expected soon, and you just shrug and file it away with all the other terrible things you’ll worry about when you get a chance. That’s understandable. But it presumes a luxury we don’t have — time. Again, this report says the world has 10 years in which to save itself — and we’ll spend at least two of those under Trump.” [ii]

Don’t ask me to explain why the party in power and its corporate handlers are doing everything they can to make things worse, as if the fate of the planet––and the well-being of their own children’s children––is nothing compared to the allure of short-term power and profit for themselves. Such suicidal selfishness is utterly incomprehensible to me. But we don’t have to approve of it to be caught up in it. We are all participants in an unsustainable culture.

Death rides a pale horse. (Rev 6)

Of course, there are many people, governments and institutions who recognize the climate crisis and are working to address it. Even in the heart of Trumpian coal country, West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mailis sounding the alarm:

“When today’s kindergartners are in their 20s, they may find a devastated world wracked by horrible hurricanes, droughts, floods, wildfires, tornadoes and other tragedies made worse by global warming. Coastal cities may be abandoned, sunken wrecks. Poverty and misery may result.”

The editorial goes on to note that hurricanes Florence and Michael have “inflicted more loss than the entire worth of West Virginia’s coal industry — but conservative politicians still won’t act to reduce the damage.” [iii]

The Second Trumpet: The sea is polluted by fire, blood and death. (Rev 8)

Only ten years left to avert catastrophe! The message is clear: change or die. But given the dysfunctional paralysis of the American government, the iron grip of vulture capitalism, and the enormity of scale required for worldwide transformation, the prospects for success are bleak. The Titanic can’t turn on a dime. And when the captain doesn’t even believe in icebergs, it’s time to strike up “Nearer, my God, to Thee.”

On a recent trip to France, I beheld, for the first time, the extraordinary Tapestry of the Apocalypse in Angers, whose 84 large panels depict scenes from the Revelation of St. John the Divine. This riveting medieval visual sequence­­––the largest wall-hanging ever woven in Europe–– extends in parallel rows for 104 meters down the length of a vast, dimly-lit hall. It’s like a gigantic textile comic strip. Although the 700-year-old dyes have faded over time, these visionary scenes remain compellingly vivid, dense with iconography and narrative.

The Tapestry of the Apocalypse, Angers, France.

Theologian Austin Farrer described their source, the book of Revelation, as a great work of religious imagination.  “It is the one great poem which the first Christian age produced, it is a single and living unity from end to end, and it contains a whole world of spiritual imagery to be entered into and possessed.” [iv] Gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson added his own appreciation. “I still read the Book of Revelation,” he said, “when I need to get cranked up about language.” [v]

The meaning and value of the Bible’s last book have long been debated. Was it a mystical vision, a theo-political critique of the Roman Empire, or a quasi-liturgical dramatization of eschatological themes? The violent imagery of Revelation has been misused by religious cranks and maniacs in notoriously unhealthy ways, but the text has also––more than any other biblical book––given us many sublime prayer and hymn texts. Often neglected in times of contentment or complacency, it speaks loudly in times of crisis. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the book never made much sense to him until the rise of the Nazis.

“Babylon” is Revelation’s code name for the Roman empire, the oppressive and sinful social consensus whose claims of absolute totality were grounded in seduction, deceit and the enforcing threat of violence. And while that particular empire is long gone, Babylon is still around. “Bellicose, selfish, self-deluded, icy, absurdly resolute––behold the Rome of the book of Revelation,” said the Jesuit prophet-poet Daniel Berrigan. And, he added, “Behold also America.” [vi] Forty years after he wrote that, it seems truer than ever.

The Babylons of every age want us to believe that resistance is futile, because “this is the way things are.” We’re all implicated in the system. Even if we don’t like it, we can’t imagine living without it. Try preaching an exit from global capitalism next Sunday and see what happens! We may dream of the “New Jerusalem” of justice, peace and universal blessedness, but it seems impossibly distant. “If the Babylon of our time is already, from God’s perspective, a smoking ruin, how and where do we find the New Jerusalem? Is it really possible to ‘come out’ of empire when it surrounds us so completely?” [vii]

“Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” The people worship the beast of worldly power as the Dragon (Satan) approves. (Rev 13)

Like all apocalyptic literature, Revelation is pessimistic about the present age and where it is headed. But it is also full of hope about the age to come––the unexpectedly redemptive future emerging from a time of emergency. “The apocalypticist sees meaning where the uninitiated sees only chaos or catastrophe.” [viii]

Revelation insists that Babylon’s “reality” is a lie: there is an alternative to its culture of seduction and death. This alternative, the New Jerusalem, is not to be sought in some unreachable elsewhere. It is here among us, though only visible to the eyes of faith. And in every moment, every time we choose life over death, we begin to make our exodus, however small and tentative, out of Babylon’s prison into the space of divine blessedness.

The fall of Babylon. Only its demons are left to haunt the rubble. (Rev 18)

The Tapestry of the Apocalypse was created by inhabitants of their own medieval Babylon, an exitless world fraught with anxiety and doom. As half of Europe was being struck down by the Black Plague, Revelation’s harrowing images of a death-haunted, perishing world struck home. The obsessive immensity of the tapestry project testifies to a depth of existential engagement with ultimate concerns, as if the artists and weavers were driven to create a comprehensive record of their longing––and their dread––before they themselves ran out of time.

As I processed slowly, contemplatively, through the crepuscular vastness of Angers’ tapestry hall, the strange images flickered before me like an old silent movie, as though their colors and forms were signaling across the centuries with the light of a long-vanished past. Whatever these visions first said to John the Divine in his Patmos cave, whatever they meant to the fourteenth-century French weavers, they were now pleading for my attention.

See! God is making all things new.
Death will be no more,
mourning and sadness and pain will be no more.
The world of the past is gone. [ix]

 

The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven, bringing divine glory into earthly presence. (Rev 21)

Babylon is fallen. The gates to God’s eternal city are open wide. And the urgent question for believers today, in the face of a climate apocalypse, is this:

How do we hold fast to the redemptive vision
of the New Jerusalem
through the long dark night of catastrophe?

 

The Dragon pursues the expectant mother, “robed in the sun,” into the wilderness, trying to prevent the birth of hope. (Rev 12)

In the short term, we can practice both personal and collective environmental ethics, foster alliances with environmental changemakers, and incorporate a deep love and respect for the planet––and all who dwell therein––into our worship and our spiritual formation. And, setting aside for now our differences on a multitude of political and economic questions, we absolutely need to unite in casting our votes for defenders of the earth and against every climate change denier and pollution enabler. When the Beast is on the ballot, vote no!

In the long term, people of faith may face an even more daunting challenge––to cling to hope amid almost unimaginable destruction and loss: the disappearance of coastal cities and large land masses; countless millions of climate refugees; a horrific number of human deaths; mass extinction of species and habitats; economic havoc from fires, storms and floods; an endangered food supply; global conflicts over migration and dwindling resources; and the strain on political systems as they try to cope. How shall we declare God’s blessings then?

If we fail to change and the worst does come, our greatest enemy may be despair. I don’t need to contemplate the whole catalog of loss to feel the weight of immense sadness. Just picturing a single High Sierra meadow choked in smoke, or withered into a lifeless desert, is enough to make me weep.

Save us from the time of trial. That’s what the Lord’s Prayer really means by the more familiar “lead us not into temptation.” But the prayer is not asking to be spared from difficult challenges. That would make it irrelevant in the face of planetary apocalypse. We are all going to be tested by an uncertain future. But if we can beseech God with all our hearts to bring us through the experience of loss, despair and doubt with our faith and hope still intact, then “save us from the time of trial” may prove, in the climate crisis, our most earnest and necessary plea.

Meanwhile, get out of Babylon while you still can.

The Third Trumpet: A burning star falls to earth and pollutes the water supply. (Rev 8)

All photos by Jim Friedrich

 

[i] Summary and links to complete report: http://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/climate-change/

[ii] Leonard Pitts, Jr., “We only have 10 years to save ourselves from climage change,” Miami Herald, Oct. 12, 2018: https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article219870680.html

[iii] Editorial, “Like a weather report, with time, climate change projections closer, more ominous,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, October 16, 2018: https://www.wvgazettemail.com/opinion/gazette_opinion/editorial/gazette-editorial-like-a-weather-report-with-time-climate-change/article_26d13b8a-47e3-517a-9882-037b9bff6d70.html

[iv] Austin Farrer, A Rebirth of Images: The Making of St. John’s Apocalypse(1949), q. in Richard K. Emmerson, “The Apocalypse in Medieval Culture,” in The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, ed. Richard K. Emmerson & Bernard McGinn (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 293.

[v] Hunter Thompson interview in Atlantic Unbound, August 26, 1997, q. in Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now, Wes Howard-Brook & Anthony Gwyther (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 2 n. 3.

[vi] Daniel Berrigan, S.J., The Nightmare of God (1983), q. in Unveiling Empire, 44.

[vii]Unveiling Empire, 260.

[viii] Bernard McGinn, “John’s Apocalypse and the Apocalyptic Mentality,” in The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, 9.

[ix] Revelation 21:4-5.

All Is Grace: The Spiritual Cinema of “First Reformed”

Ethan Hawke in “First Reformed”

“Oh my Lord, when will you cease from scattering obstacles in our path?”
“Do not complain, my daughter. This is how I treat my friends.”
“Yes, my Lord, and that is why you have so few of them.”

–– Attributed to St. Teresa of Avila

 

Many of God’s friends have known the dark night of divine absence, when God falls silent and faith loses touch with an answering Presence. Some have understood this as a form of progress, a necessary purgation of comfortable words, images, concepts and feelings as the questing soul goes deeper and deeper into an ungraspable Mystery. Others have experienced God’s silence as nothing but nothingness, a one-way ticket into the void. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Paul Schrader’s harrowing new film, First Reformed, traverses this abyss with an intelligence and seriousness all too rare in American films about religion. The life of faith is easy to satirize, trivialize or sentimentalize in popular culture, but Schrader treats it as a subject of critical import. And in so doing, his film attempts to go “all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn.”[i]

Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the middle-aged pastor of an old Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York. The 250-year-old white colonial structure has an interesting history, but its days of relevance are long gone. Almost no one attends Sunday worship, and the building only stays open through the sponsorship of a nearby megachurch, which preserves it as a kind of museum. Tourists stop by now and then for souvenirs, and Toller’s job is to hang around and lend some authenticity to the place, like the costumed actors who re-create the past at popular historic sites.

Toller, however, is an ordained minister with a serious vocation. He conducts real worship and counsels his tiny flock. So the inescapable sense of play-acting in a museum is demeaning and demoralizing. His humiliation will be recognizable to all those clergy and congregations left behind by a culture where the biblical God has been rendered harmless––or even unthinkable.

Toller, whose very name suggests loss and mourning, lives a lonely, solitary life in a house of monastic bareness. His marriage fell apart long ago, after the death of his son in Iraq. His health is failing, and he is depressed. Prayer comes hard for him, and doubt is his constant companion. His life is a desert with no rain in the forecast.

A spiritual director once told me in a time of personal crisis, “Congratulations! You’re exactly where you need to be––fallen overboard into a raging sea.” John Donne said the same thing with seventeenth-century elegance: “No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured, and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.”[ii]

Such a rigorous spirituality may never pack the churches, but it is intriguing that First Reformed has struck a chord with critics and audiences alike. Perhaps this is due to its demanding seriousness, so refreshingly alien to the self-congratulatory spirituality of our time. We grow weary of trivia. We want to fall for something that matters so absolutely.

Half a century ago, Paul Schrader wrote a book which had a major impact on film studies. Transcendental Style in Film opened many eyes, including mine, to a different kind of cinema, in which the sacred is expressed not through psychological realism but through a film style fraught with renunciations. No expressive or self-conscious acting presuming to explain the mystery of human beings. No fancy camerawork interpreting a scene or manipulating an audience. A withholding of many of the emotional satisfactions which moviegoers have come to expect. Transcendental cinema, in Schrader’s view, doesn’t just represent religious experience. It creates it in the viewer.

“Transcendental style,” he concluded, “can bring us nearer to that silence, that invisible image, in which the parallel lines of religion and art meet and interpenetrate.”[iii]

Schrader was raised in a strict Dutch Calvinist home. Movie-going was forbidden in his childhood. But he eventually fled the constricting faith of his ancestors and, like the Prodigal Son, lived in the distant country of movies saturated with violent themes and forbidden pleasures. He also worked on the script for The Last Temptation of Christ. Some of his films, like American Gigolo, revisited the spiritual terrain of his seminal book, but First Reformed, made in his early seventies, is Schrader’s most explicit homage to transcendental cinema, and especially to the work of my favorite director, Robert Bresson, who once said, “No art without transformation.”[iv]

First Reformed strongly echoes Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1950) in many ways: a pastor in crisis who keeps a journal and speaks it in voice-over; a worrisome stomach ailment; a bleak environment––claustrophobic and without exit; a barren and unanswered prayer life; a heavy dark cloak as metonymy for his sense of confinement; the suicide by shotgun of a parishioner in despair; and long silences begging for divine presence. Schrader’s Bressonesque film style––the constraining “Academy” film ratio (1.37:1) instead of the expansiveness of wide screen, an austere minimizing of music and camera movement, the cold factuality of interior spaces begging for the miracle of life and breath––also tells a story. As Susan Sontag once remarked of Bresson, his form does not merely perfectly express what he wants to say. “It is what he wants to say.”[v]

Schrader’s writing in Transcendental Style about the three forms of alienation in Bresson’s film reads like a template for First Reformed:

  • The priest and his afflcted body: “He feels himself condemned by the weight he must bear, and associates his agony with the sacrificial agony of Christ.”
  • The priest and his parish: “The priest’s agony alienates his community, and it is an agony which he seems unable to control.”
  • The priest and the fallen world: “The priest is unable to cope with the world of sin, either in himself or others. . . He is able to bring peace to others, yet has none himself . . . His holy agony allows him none of the temporal means of release which Church, society, and body provide.”[vi]

But there are also some crucial differences between the two films. The priest’s only diet is bread and wine, identifying the priest’s suffering with the eucharist. The pastor substitutes whiskey for wine, and pours in some Pepto-Bismol to boot, creating a nauseous parody bereft of holy resonance.

The priest is young, innocent and virginal, without a haunting past. The pastor is middle-aged, burned out by an excess of experience, and carrying a burden of grief and loss unknown to the young. Their contrasting faces read like different languages. Claude Laydu, a non-actor whose face suggests an inner life attuned to divine secrets, has the expressive eyes and hieratic features of an icon. When he gazes offscreen, it seems possible he could be glimpsing the hidden God. Hawke’s face is creased, tired, tense and unexpectant; his narrowed eyes give off no light.

Claude Laydu, Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed (2018)

Both men identify with the Passion of Christ. Toller’s boss, a megachurch pastor practiced at compromise, tells him, “You’re always in the garden [of Gethsemane]. Jesus wasn’t always in the garden, sweating blood. He was on the mountain, in the marketplace, and the Temple. . . But for you, every hour is the darkest hour.”

In Bresson, the priest writes in his journal, “I am a prisoner of the Holy Agony,” and the film mirrors the Stations of the Cross. But Toller seems unable to turn his personal anguish into gift, while Bresson’s priest, though suffering inwardly and rejected by many, manages to make an immense difference in the lives of some:

Oh miracle –
thus to be able to give
what we ourselves do not possess,
sweet miracle of our empty hands.[vii]

First Reformed also draws key elements from Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, described by Robin Wood as a “spiritual documentary” where “alienation from the past, from the traditional beliefs and customs that formed the basis of a way of life” has left church and village stranded “between two worlds, belonging to neither, bewildered and unfulfilled.”[viii] Its Swedish Lutheran parish is as much a relic of a vanished age as Toller’s “souvenir church.”

Bergman’s aging Lutheran pastor, Tomas (the name of Jesus’ doubting disciple), is also in a crisis of faith. He recites the liturgy without conviction, and his pastoral counsel has a patently empty ring. When a parishioner confesses his despair over the prospect of nuclear war (the film was made in 1962), the pastor tells him, “We must trust God.” But then he averts his eyes from the man’s gaze, a “tell” that betrays his own unbelief. After receiving such impotent counsel, the parishioner goes down to the river and shoots himself. Virtually the same incident occurs in First Reformed, but instead of nuclear winter, climate change is the engine of despair. Sickened by statistical forecasts of environmental collapse, a young activist finds no comfort in Toller’s citations from Thomas Merton on facing the abyss with courage. The activist goes out and shoots himself in a snowy wood.

Another element Schrader seems to have borrowed from Winter Light is the character of Karin, the caring woman who wants to mother the troubled pastor. The audience audibly winces when the pastor of First Reformed responds to the woman’s kindness by saying, “I despise you!” But on reflection this seems not just an inability to receive affection, but a way of saying, “This is not that kind of movie. My sickness unto death will not be cured by a romantic cliche.”

In Bergman’s film, Tomas goes even further. In what Wood calls one of the “most painful and ugly . . . in all cinema,” Tomas annihilates Karin’s illusions about their relationship. But strangely, the terrible honesty of this exchange, along with his confession of religious disillusionment in a previous scene, seems to open the possibility for an unexpected grace in which each may discover a kind of salvation in human relationships which an exhausted orthodoxy can no longer provide.

Though Tomas has lost his faith, the film ends with him at the altar, speaking the old words of praise because that’s the only language he possesses for whatever, if anything, is beyond him: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are filled with your glory.” The nave is even emptier than the one in First Reformed––only Karin and the sexton. But we see Karin, who is an atheist, listening with the utmost attention. “[T]he irony is very beautiful and touching, the disillusioned priest celebrating Vespers for the confirmed atheist, a sort of inexplicit communion between them.”[ix]

Although neither they, nor Bergman himself, have been able to retain the language or vision of inherited belief, the eyes of faith might still perceive in the ending of Winter Light (its Swedish title is The Communicants) a hint of the communion which God never stops desiring, no matter what the rest of us manage to believe.

As the poet Christian Wiman suggests,

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.[x]

Or as Natalie Carnes puts it in her intriguing new book, Image and Presence, the iconoclasm of the cross ensures that the death of old words and images does not mean the death of the Reality behind them. “The cross breaks the brokenness, the violence of idolatry. It breaks brokenness to proclaim the ubiquity of God’s love. It identifies the way God is present in a special way, a riven and riving way, to those suffering divine absence. It courses through the cosmos, which takes its shape, displaying the broken center of all things.”[xi]

The ending for Bresson’s priest, in contrast, remains firmly within the language of Christian orthodoxy. Having passed through his dark night of doubt, and resigning himself to premature death from cancer, he dies in peace. His last words, spoken to comfort a doubting friend, is the best summary I know of the Christian faith:

“What does it matter? All is grace.”

The ending of First Reformed, however, is nothing like the country priest’s trusting departure from this world, nor does it settle for the potential beatitude of purely human relationships suggested by Winter Light. Something extraordinary and redemptive seems to happen in its enigmatic conclusion, but no one can say exactly what. Everybody I know who has watched the film asks the same question: What did you think about that ending?

Its highly charged mix of image, symbol, physicality and feeling resists any closure, and Schrader himself has rightly refused to explain it. Critics have applied words like “epiphany” and “catharsis” to the final scene, but have generally avoided discussing it. This reticence respects the viewer’s right to see for oneself, but it also suggests that none of us are sure what to make of it. I share that sense of indecidability regarding the climax, but can’t help thinking about it.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the film yet, read no further until you do.]

While most of the film has been inspired by Diary of a Country Priest and Winter Light, the ending shares an affinity with a third film, Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). For most of that film, the protagonist, Michel, is locked within the prison of his ego, unable to connect with reality beyond the self. Unable to love. In the final scene, he is locked in an actual prison cell. Jeanne, a woman he knows in an unromantic way, comes to visit him. The film has so far given us little reason to think there is, or may be, a deep connection between these two. But in a famous ending that seems sudden, unexpected, and unmotivated, she reaches out to him, and he responds to Love at last. “Oh Jeanne,” he says, “what a strange path I had to take to reach you.”[xii]

The ending of First Reformed, like the ending of Pickpocket, is a powerful image of surprising and unmerited grace. Jean Collet’s reflection on Bresson’s climactic prison scene could describe Schrader’s ending as well: “If this final illumination was caused by some necessity of plot, we would no longer be required to speak of grace. By definition grace is that which is free of any necessity, and hence gratuitous. Isn’t that enough to make the conversion of Michel not appear improbable?”[xiii]

In the course of First Reformed, Toller shifts the focus of his spiritual struggle from his own inwardness to the fate of an earth in dire peril. In a prickly conversation with Edward Balq, the church’s financial patron but also a notorious polluter, he is warned by the conscience-free entrepreneur to keep politics out of church. Clergy should not meddle in public issues. And environmental concerns are too complicated to be subject to moral judgments. But Toller rebukes him with a simple but convicting question:

“Will God forgive us?”

As Toller goes on to ponder the immensity of the stakes, he comes to decide that Balq, as a servant of darkness, must be killed in an act of prophetic terrorism. This horrifying turn of mind threatens to lose the sympathetic viewer. As we watch this decision unfold, we are thinking, “Don’t go there!”

Balq’s arrival at the church’s 250th anniversary celebration provides the perfect opportunity. Vesting for the ceremony in the rectory next door, Toller puts on a suicide vest beneath his black robe as we hear him, in voice over, reciting Ephesians 9:11-12:

Put on the whole armor of God,
so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,
but against the rulers, against the authorities,
against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,
against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

In Toller’s troubled mind, the cosmic powers of darkness are sitting in a pew next door. But the viewer is appalled by the pastor’s descent into madness. However evil the acts of men like Balq, equating a suicide vest with the armor of God is abhorrent and wrong.

When Toller learns that Mary, the pregnant widow of the dead activist, is inside the church as well, he abruptly scraps his apocalyptic mission. Her life means more to him than his terrible burden of wrath. And her unborn child, like the child of the Nativity, signifies hope for the human future in a fallen world. To put that at risk would be the greater sin.

But he still feels compelled to make a dramatic self-sacrificial gesture, turning the violence against himself. His vocation is in tatters, he will probably die of cancer, and the end of humanity may be drawing near. He had once warned the activist about the pride of a certitude that surrenders hope in the face of despair. Now he himself has become a prisoner of that fatal arrogance, confusing his own suffering with Christ’s. He prepares to make his own body a signifier of planetary suicide.

He replaces the suicide vest with a coil of barbed wire, wrapping it painfully around his torso in parodic imitation of the crown of thorns. Then he covers his bleeding body with a Christ-like white robe––a vivid image of the paradoxical tension between the Christ of glory and the broken and desolate Christ on the edge of oblivion. But just before Toller can take his own life with a toxic glass of drain cleaner (a grotesque symbol of baptismal cleansing?), he looks up to see Mary, standing quietly on the other side of the unfurnished empty space of his living room. When did she enter? Why has she come?

“Ernst,” she says. It is the first time we have heard anyone speak his baptismal name. He’s always been addressed as “Reverend Toller.” But now, like Magdalene weeping at the tomb, he hears his name called by the tender voice of his “savior,” summoning him back from the dead. Without any hesitation, he sweeps across the room into her arms. As they embrace and kiss with unrestrained intensity, the camera, so still and quiet throughout most of the film, suddenly comes to life, circling round and round this miracle of redemptive love, like angelic praises whirling around the throne of God.

This breathtaking perichoresis [xiv] continues without ceasing for a full minute, until it abruptly vanishes in a startling cut to darkness and silence. No lingering fadeout, just this sudden absence. Over the next bewildering 8 seconds, the viewer wonders whether the projector has broken. But then, the credits begin to scroll across the blackness, accompanied by the same low-pitched waves of mournful sound heard in the film’s bleak passages of environmental dread, as if to resist any presumptions of “happily ever after.” We may have glimpsed for a moment the miracle of saving love at the heart of the universe, but our fallen world still yearns in the dark.

To me the last scene felt like something more than the natural outcome of the affinity we saw building between Ernst and Mary after her husband’s death. Reducing their union to a formula of movie romance would fail to perform the revelatory transit from the visible to the invisible. Schrader wants to give us more than a warm, familiar feeling. He wants to deliver the Wholly Other, who will not be contained by language or understanding.

So Mary, pregnant with future, provides a surplus of meanings as she offers Ernst––and the receptive viewer––the divine embrace in all its forms: grace, mercy, forgiveness, peace, healing, hope, joy and the mystery of self-diffusive love. Its very unexpectedness is a sign of its sacred character. It is not something of our own making. It is pure gift.

The essential function of spiritual cinema is not to structure a plausible narrative confined to the world we know, but to use the means of its form to create an experience of the life-giving sacred in the viewer’s inmost self. So whether Mary is the divine feminine, Dante’s Beatrice, an angel, a dream, Toller’s long-lost soul, or simply another one of God’s human children trying to connect, what does it matter?

All is grace.

 

 

 

Related postThe Ten Best Religious Films

 

[i] From “Brownsville Girl,” a song by Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard on Bob Dylan: Knocked Out Loaded (1986). “How far are y’all going?” Ruby asked us with a sigh / “We’re going all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn / Till the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies” / Ruby just smiled and said, “Ah, you know some babies never learn.”

[ii] Devotions lxxxvii 17, q. in Helen Wilcox, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 164.

[iii] Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 169.

[iv] Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, trans. Jonathan Griffin (New York: Urizen Books, 1977), 5.

[v] Susan Sontag, “The Spiritual Style of Robert Bresson,” in Against Interpretation (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1966), 180.

[vi] Transcendental Style, 73, 75.

[vii] In the film, the priest speaks these words in voice over as we see him kneel by the deathbed of a woman for whom he had been a vehicle of miraculous grace.

[viii] Robin Wood, Ingmar Bergman (New York: Praeger, 1970), 111.

[ix] Ibid., 122-23.

[x] Christian Wiman, “Every Riven Thing,” in his collection of the same name (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010), 24.

[xi] Natalie Carnes, Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018), 113.

[xii] Schrader uses this line verbatim, and recreates the essence of Bresson’s scene, in his own film, American Gigolo (1980).

[xiii] Jean Collet, q. in Joseph Cunneen, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film (New York: Continuum, 2003), 82.

[xiv] This Greek word for “dancing in a circular pattern” has long been used to describe the ceaseless movement of interpenetrating, self-diffusive love which is the Holy Trinity. Schrader’s image may be more carnal than most theology is used to, but that’s the price of the Incarnation!