“I mean to be one too”: A Homily for All Saints

Procession of the Faithful from Baptism to Eucharist, Bamberg Commentaries, c. 1000.

There is only one sadness; it is the sadness of not being saints. 

— Leon Bloy [i]

In a 1998 New York Times interview, Gregory Peck reflected on the challenge of playing Ahab in Moby Dick. “I think I should have been more ferocious in pursuit of the whale, more cruel to the crew,” he said, “and I think I’d have a better grasp now of what Melville was talking about. Ahab focused all his energies on avenging himself against the whale, but he was trying to penetrate the mystery of why we are here at all, why there is anything. I wasn’t mad enough, not crazy enough, not obsessive enough. I should have done more.” He paused, took a long breath, and added: “At the time, I didn’t have more in me.” [ii]

When you hear the stories of the saints, do you say, “I mean to be one too!”—or do you feel you’re not quite ready for the part? Maybe you’re not crazy enough, not obsessive enough, not pure enough, not loving enough. You may think, “I don’t have it in me.” 

Well, you’re right. You don’t. But that’s the point. The saints don’t have it in them either. Saintliness comes from a source deeper than their own solitary selves. The true hero or heroine of a saint’s life is not the individual person, but the divine intention taking flesh in his or her story. As St. Paul said of his own life’s protagonist, “Not I, but Christ in me” (Gal. 2:20).

As Wendy Wright has written, saints “are people who have had the imagination and audacity to allow themselves to be remade slowly in the image of the living God, people who have so opened their hearts to God that God’s own story is in them once again … retold.” [iii] Every saint’s life is a unique retelling, shaped by the particulars of heredity, personality and environment, but down deep it’s always the same story, over and over again: the story of “love’s endeavor, love’s expense,”[iv] perpetually pouring itself out for the life of the world. 

When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me a gilt-edged copy of one the great classics of Christian devotion, Of the Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas à Kempis in the early 15th century. My father wrote in the front, “We hope that this book will bring you closer to the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Love, Mom & Dad.”

Although not all of Thomas’ late medieval spirituality resonates today, much of it still hits home.

Blessed are the ears that catch the pulse of the Divine whisper, and give no heed to the whisperings of this world … Blessed are they that prepare themselves more and more, by daily exercises, for the receiving of heavenly secrets. Blessed are they who are glad to have time to spare for God.[v]

O my friend, lose not thy confidence of making progress toward the things of the Spirit; still thou hast time, the hour is not yet past. Why wilt thou defer thy good purpose from day to day? Arise, and in this very instant begin, and say, Now is the time to be doing, now is the time to be striving, now is the fit time to be amending myself.[vi]

(Mom, Dad, I’m still working on it!)

Every saint’s life is an imitation of Christ. The very structure of Christian sacred biographies reflects this theological point. In the Book of Acts, the martyrdom of Stephen—the first biography of a Christian saint—deliberately mirrors the Passion of Christ. Like Jesus, Stephen is an innocent killed by a world which refuses his message. Like Jesus, Stephen uses his final breaths to forgive his enemies and surrender his spirit to the divine. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” he prays at the end. Perhaps it’s not enough to say that Stephen was imitating Christ in his martyrdom. He was, in truth, repeating Christ, in the Pauline sense of “Christ in me.” We suggest the same sense of return and presence in the Words of Institution at every eucharist: Whenever you perform these actions, I am with you once again.

Eleven centuries after the death of Stephen, St. Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx in the north of England, lay on his deathbed, eyes closed. His friend and fellow monk, Walter Daniel, leaned over to whisper in his ear, “Look on the cross; let your eye be where your heart is.” Aelred opened his eyes for just a moment, and spoke his last words: “In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum” (“Into your hands I commend my spirit.”) Once again, the surrender of spirit by a dying saint echoes the last words of Jesus from the cross in Luke 23:46. 

In fact, unlike Stephen’s paraphrase, it was a direct quote. Did Walter, Aelred’s biographer, insert the verse from Luke into his abbot’s mouth as a pious fiction, or had Aelred in fact repeated Christ’s words verbatim? In the genre of sacred biography, we don’t need to know the factual answer. Holy stories are always about more than what a camera or microphone can record. As narratives straddling the mysterious boundary between the human and the divine, their language dives beneath the empirical surface to explore the hidden depths. Hyperbole, metaphor, miracle—these are all rhetorical tools to convey the inherently mysterious nature of religious experience. 

As Thomas J. Heffernan points out in his seminal study of sacred biographies, “Walter would argue, and his monastic audience would agree, that Aelred’s death has become more memorable because it is now able to arouse in us the memory of another death, the death of Christ, which is the paradigm for the manner in which all Christian martyrs are meant to surrender to God.” [vii]

When it comes to saints, it is not in the historical particulars of their stories, however interesting, edifying, or inspiring, that the central meaning of their lives is to be found, but rather in the way their stories imitate, or repeat, the Christ event, as divine love takes place anew in the flesh of our human existence. As hymn writer Isaac Watts summarized this process:

“The image of Christ is transcribed upon our natures, we go from one degree of it to another, we are changed from glory into glory, from one degree of glorious holiness to another: thereby the gospel appears to have a fairer, brighter, and a stronger evidence.” [viii] We, having Christ in us, become the evidence for the truth of Christian faith.

In other words, saints are living icons, radiant with the light of heaven—even if they sometimes have messy and complicated lives.  Take, for example, Elizaveta Pilenko. Born to a wealthy Russian family in 1891, she was caught up in the revolutionary movement during her late teens. She briefly flirted with a plot to assassinate Trotsky (Russian politics were deadly even then). But at the same time, her Orthodox faith was beginning to deepen. She fled the Stalinist regime for Paris in the 1920s, by which time her second marriage, like her first, had failed, and a daughter had died of influenza. 

In her new home, she began a ministry to the poor, and her bishop encouraged her to take vows as a nun. She did so, receiving her religious name, Maria Skobtsova. She was permitted to continue to live and work among the people, and her rented Parisian house had an open door for refugees and lost souls. Her bishop called her faux monastery “the desert of human hearts.” 

She wasn’t exactly easy for her sister nuns. She wore odd clothes, and hung out in cafes and bars late into the night, counseling people on the brink of despair. She also missed many liturgies while off scrounging food for her soup kitchens in the markets of Las Halles. She’s been called the Orthodox Dorothy Day.

St. Mary of Paris (Maria Skobtsova).

When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Mother Maria sheltered many Jews, supplying them with baptismal certificates and assisting their escape. Eventually arrested by the Gestapo, she died in the gas chamber at Ravensbrück on Holy Saturday, 1945. She was canonized as St. Mary of Paris in 2004.

Mother Maria was also a writer of poetry and theology. Listen to what she said about the Christian life as a continual self-emptying:  

“Renunciation teaches us not only that we not greedily seek advantages for our soul but that we not be stingy, that we always be extravagant in our love, that we achieve a spiritual nakedness, that our soul hold nothing back, that we not hold back anything sacred and valuable which we would not be ready to give up in Christ’s name to those who need it …That which was given away returns. The love which was expended never diminishes the source of that love, because the source of love in our hearts is Love itself, Christ… Here we are speaking about a genuine emptying out, in a partial imitation of how Christ emptied himself by becoming incarnate in humanity. We must likewise empty ourselves out completely, becoming, so to speak, incarnate in another human soul, offering it to the full measure of God’s image which is contained in ourselves.” [ix]  

Now when we hear a prescription like that, we may worry, as Gregory Peck did over Melville’s Ahab, about our capacity to perform such a demanding role. What we need to remember is this: the subject of our life is not our individual, autonomous self, but the transcendent, empowering Christ who dwells within us. In a recent podcast, Mark Harris, one of my most eloquent priestly friends, made this point perfectly. “When I look at the heroes I have in terms of justice ministries,” he said, “they are people who live into this to the point of self-emptying. They get out of the way finally. It’s not about their being good; it’s about good being done. So it’s God’s justice that’s done, not them doing justice.” [x]

Heavenly Adam, Life divine
Change my nature into Thine;
Move and spread throughout my soul;
Activate and fill the whole;
Be it I no longer now
Living in the flesh, but Thou. 

— Charles Wesley

Our own holiness practice may not entail the rigors or reach the heights of the greatest saints. Most of us are called to what Thérèse of Lisieux described as “the Little Way.” As a dreamy teenager, Thérèse thought it would be simply thrilling to be a saint:

“I would be a Martyr … I would be a Missionary. I would be flayed like St. Bartholomew, plunged into boiling oil like St. John, or, like St. Ignatius of Antioch, I would be ground by the teeth of wild beasts into bread worthy of God. With St. Agnes and St. Cecilia I would offer my neck to the sword of the executioner, and like St. Joan of Arc I would murmur the name of Jesus at the stake.” [xi]

Thérèse of Lisieux.

However, such heroic drama would be denied her. After a brief and uneventful life hidden within a Carmelite cloister, she died from tuberculosis at 24. But her autobiography, detailing her efforts to respond to the smallest, most ordinary moments with a loving, patient and generous heart, would inspire countless faithful around the world.  “I am only a very little soul,” she said, “who can only offer very little things to the Lord.”

Fr. Alban Butler, who in the 18th century compiled the most extensive compendium of saintly lives in the English language, also made the point that sanctity can be a practical, everyday kind of holiness: 

“Perfection consists not in raptures and lofty contemplation; nor in austerities, or any extraordinary actions: for thus, it would have been above the reach of many. But God has placed it in what is easy, and in every one’s power. The rich and poor, the learned and unlearned may equally aim at perfection: for it requires only that we perform our daily actions in a spirit of true Christian virtue … we must be holy not by fits, but by habit … it is then our ordinary actions performed in a true spirit of virtue … which must sanctify our lives.” [xii]

We must be holy not by fits, but by habit, 
performing our ordinary actions in a true spirit of virtue.

Blessed are those who rise and shine.
Blessed are those who lend a hand. 
Blessed are those who listen.
Blessed are those who take the time.
Blessed are those who speak kindly.
Blessed are those who smile at strangers.
Blessed are those who plant.
Blessed are those who raise children.
Blessed are those who teach.
Blessed are those who provide our meals.
Blessed are those who do the hard things.
Blessed are those who look with compassion.
Blessed are those who do justice. 
Blessed are those who wonder.
Blessed are those who welcome.
Blessed are those who nurture.
Blessed are those who care. 
Blessed are those who struggle with failing bodies. 
Blessed are those who suffer.
Blessed are the broken.
Blessed are those who know loss. 
Blessed are those who persist.
Blessed are those who surrender.
Blessed are those who remember hope.
Blessed are those who practice resurrection. 

“To be a saint,” says Frederick Buechner, “is to live not with hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out both to give and receive with gladness.” [xiii]  You see, it’s very simple to be a saint. Just open your hands, and your heart.

Claude Laydu, Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1951).

The greatest cinematic depiction of sainthood is Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, based on George Bernanos’ novel of the same name. The unnamed priest is rejected by many in his village, but it is clear to a few—and to the viewer—that Christ is truly in him. The priest experiences what he calls “the miracle of our empty hands!—that we may give what we do not possess!” Claude Laydu, the non-professional who played the part, threw himself into the role, living with working-class priests, adopting an austere diet, studying the novel throughout the shoot, and submitting without question to Bresson’s strict direction. As critic Tony Pipolo writes, “The very qualities this behavior manifests—obedience, obsessive concentration, a combination of fire and composure, and genuine dedication—were exactly those Bresson sought for his curé.”[xiv] But only after viewing the finished film would Laydu recognize the true nature of his role. “I didn’t know I was playing a saint,” he confessed. I think all the saints would say pretty much the same thing. 

I’ll give the last word to Buechner, who writes about saints as well as any. In a novel about Brendan of Ireland, his protagonist sums it up beautifully: 

“[God] wants each one of us to have a loving heart …
When all’s said and done, perhaps that’s the length and breadth of it.” [xv]



[i] Cited in Tony Pipolo, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 71.

[ii] Gregory Peck New York Times interview in 1988, quoted in William Grimes’ New York Times obituary for Mr. Peck, June 13, 2003. 

[iii] Wendy Wright, “For all the saints,” in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life (Vol. III, No. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1988), 17-18.

[iv] From W. H. Vanstone’s hymn, “Morning glory, starlit sky” (Episcopal Hymnal 1982, #585). The endeavor and expense are spelled out in verse 3: “Love that gives, gives evermore, / gives with zeal, with eager hands, / spares not, keeps not, all outpours, / ventures all, its all expends.”

[v] On the Imitation of Christ, Book 3, ch. I.

[vi] Ibid., Book 1, ch. XXII.

[vii] Thomas J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (Oxford/New York): Oxford University Press, 1988), 79.

[viii] Isaac Watts (1674-1748), cited in Gordon Mursell, English Spirituality: From 1700 to the Present Day (London, SPCK, 2008), 69.

[ix] Maria Skobtsova, in Michael Plekon, Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church (Notre Dame 2002), 76.

[x] The Rev. Mark Harris, speaking about the Beatitudes on the video podcast, Circuosity .21https://youtu.be/6V6zGsX9yqA

[xi] Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), cited in Jill Haak Adels, The Wisdom of the Saints: An Anthology (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 7.

[xii] Alban Butler (1710-1773), Meditations and Discourses, cited in Mursell, 36.

[xiii] Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat (New York: Seabury Press, 1966), 119.

[xiv] Pipolo, op. cit., 71.

[xv] Buechner, Brendan (New York: Atheneum, 1987), 216.

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!

The ten best religious films

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A man goes into a butcher shop and says, “Give me your best piece of meat.” And the butcher replies, “Everything in my shop is the best.” (Zen story)

Top ten lists are inherently fraudulent. By what authority do I declare what is best? And by what criteria? And which religion? But if I had titled this post, “Ten compelling films which engage religious questions from a [mostly] western Christian perspective,” it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. We love rankings, if for no other reason than the pleasure of argument.

My list is totally subjective of course, and infinitely revisable, depending on the day, or where I am in my life (although Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest has topped my list every since I first saw it in Ann Arbor 45 years ago and subsequently had to wander around for a couple of hours on a rainy night until I was capable of returning to ordinary life).

I have restricted myself to one film per director (or else Bresson would take up about six places, and Tarkovsky a few more, etc.). I have also stuck to the western Christian tradition, with the Russian orthodoxy of Tarkovsky the one exception.

And while there are many films with spiritual subjects or theological themes, I have focused primarily on examples of what Paul Schrader calls “transcendental style” – films which are not just about religious experience, but themselves create religious experience in the viewer, through cinematic form and language as much as story. Icon writers know this well. There’s a lot to say about transcendental style, but for now let me simply cite Susan Sontag’s remark about Robert Bresson: “His form does not merely perfectly express what he wants to say. It is what he wants to say.”

All these films are available on DVD or Blu-ray, and I hope you will be encouraged to explore them. But I must warn you that not all these films are equally accessible. Most of them refuse the usual manipulations and excitements of mass cinema, and demand a contemplative mind. Transcendental style can be as rigorous as prayer. But as Iranian director Abbas Kiorastami has said, “I would rather see a film that might even bore me in the act of watching but that later I can’t stop thinking about, than a film that keeps me on the edge of my seat and then is immediately forgotten.”

Here is my list, in alphabetical order.

1) Decalogue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland 1988)   This extraordinary cycle of short films explores various lives within a single apartment block, whose grey concrete bleakness exudes the alienation and melancholy felt by many of its residents. It is the world after the Fall, when instinct and intuition no longer suffice to guide human living. Each film is roughly based on one of the Ten Commandments, but the imperatives of each situation are far from clear. Choices matter intensely (it is not such a godless world that one can do anything one wishes), but most of the characters are bewildered and beset by the questions before them. And yet – grace happens, people connect, souls find mercy. Not every time, but enough to keep alive the hope that God – embodied by a mysterious figure who always seems to be around at key moments – has not abandoned us.

2) Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, France 1950)   Bresson pares away everything inessential to show the story of a soul. The miracle of his “transcendental style” is that he shows us not so much what people do as who they are – not through explaining them psychologically, but by letting their mystery be. As with iconography, a kind of inexpressiveness on the surface allows hidden depths to shine through. As the priest walks his own Stations of the Cross, the sorrowful way becomes a revelation of grace. This is not a film about religious experience – it is religious experience.

3) Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland 2013)   Is the religious life purely a product of environment, or is it indelibly inscribed on the heart? In 1962, a young novice, raised as an orphan in her convent, is sent into the world to visit her only living relative, just prior to taking her final vows. Will her vocation survive outside the cloister? The people she encounters, the discoveries she makes about her past, the suddenly viable prospect of a life in the outside world – all present her with new options for her life and vocation. One of the many beauties of this film is that neither the convent nor the outer world are judged. Both are viewed with sympathy and respect. Until she decides her future, Ida is shown off center, at the edge or bottom of the frame. But in the film’s final shot, she is perfectly centered at last.

4) Into Great Silence (Philip Gröning, Germany 2005)   The director spent 6 months in residence at a Carthusian monastery in the Alps, filming monastic life and worship. Using only natural light, he shows us a numinous world of shadows pierced by the radiance of windows and candles. Dwelling in this world of prayer and silence for nearly three hours, we slow ourselves to the monastic rhythm, and emerge refreshed and centered, and thankful for those who give their lives to providing, as Dan Berrigan once put it, “large reserves of available sanity.”

5) Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA 1999)   Is the world only a confusion of chance and arbitrary choice, or do providence and purpose exist? Is the universe a matter of chaos or love? Anderson explores the possibility of connection, pattern and grace in the intersecting lives of many different characters, all of whom are in some way broken, wounded or lost, casualties of a city (Los Angeles) which, like the biblical Egypt, has produced countless captives and victims. In one unforgettable scene, nine of the characters are shown, each in their particular condition of need and supplication, singing along with the soundtrack, Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” (“It’s not going to stop till you wise up”). Their capacity to exit the prison of the self just enough to partake of the soundtrack’s “common prayer” is both ritual transcendence and the tentative praxis of real liberation. As if in answer, a biblical rain of frogs falls from heaven.

6) The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, Poland 2011)   In a windmill perched high above a broad plain teeming with figures, God is a miller grinding the terrors of history into something better, even as the Christ is being dragged to the cross. This strange, haunting and difficult film immerses us within the complex world of a single painting, Pieter Brueghel’s “The Way to Calvary,” where the Passion of Christ is relocated to the painter’s own 16th century world. Through a visually stunning use of computer imaging, we dwell within the painting’s fantastic landscape and mingle at close range with its numerous characters. The effect is astonishing, as if we are dreaming with a premodern mind. The human suffering is arduous and heartbreaking, but it does not have the last word. In the end, the dance goes on.

7) Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky, Russia 1983)   All of Tarkovsky’s films practice what he called “sculpting in time,” using a contemplative camera and lengthy shots to register a deeper flow and presence than films that hurry from one incident to the next. For western Christians, the image is usually about something. For an orthodox Christian like Tarkovsky, the image is something. The viewer becomes less a spectator than a supplicant. “The aim of art,” said Tarkovsky, “is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow the soul, rendering it capable of turning to the good.” Nostalghia is more poetry than narrative, rhyming fire and water, dream and memory, ritual and redemption, to counter the malaise of materialism.

8) Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, France 2010)   Based on a true story of a monastic community facing martyrdom in 1990’s Algeria, this is a profoundly moving story of self-offering and radical forgiveness. Structured around the liturgical hours and seasons, its unhurried scenes of prayers and chants allow us to worship along with the monks. But they are asked to sacrifice more than praise, and their faithful willingness to take up the cross poses serious questions for our own discipleship.

9) Ordet (Carl Dreyer, Denmark 1955)   Like the parables of Jesus, Ordet (“The Word”) employs the forms and situations of the everyday world only to break open the frame of that world with the startling intrusion of an alternate reality. Dreyer’s film, like its “holy fool” Johannes, presents us with divine impossibility in perpetual tension with the way we expect things to go. It uses material means – faces, architecture, landscape, language, light – to show us the immaterial, but in the end we are led not away from corporeal existence, but rather more deeply into it.

10) To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, USA 2012)   “Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” This line from The Tree of Life (drawn from Dostoevsky) is the theme of every Malick film. While his work has always reflected a deep interest in philosophy and religion, his most recent films have been theologically explicit to a degree unique in American cinema. The Tree of Life covers the biblical span from Creation to Apocalypse, while To the Wonder narrows its focus to the Song of Songs’ analogy between human relationships and divine-human love. Unlike the plot-driven narratives of most films, To the Wonder unfolds in hints, glimpses, ellipses and temporal leaps. We can’t always be sure whether we are seeing events, memories or thoughts. As with Bresson, there is no psychological explaining of characters. They retain the open-endedness of their essential mystery. It’s not so much a film in the usual sense as it is a dance, a poem, even a prayer. The viewers aren’t simply invited to watch the ecstatic images, but to become ecstatic themselves.