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!

Sweet miracle of our empty hands

Young priest in the Chapel of the Transfiguration, Grand Tetons National Park (1976)

Young priest in the Chapel of the Transfiguration, Grand Tetons National Park (1976)

When I preached at my wife Karen’s ordination on All Souls Day, 2010, I reflected on the peculiar vocation of priesthood. Since today, the Feast of Hildegard of Bingen, is the 45th anniversary of my own ordination, it seems fitting to publish it here.

In nineteenth-century Paris, there was a certain priest who was not quite right in the head, and one day he walked into a bakery, made the sign of the cross over the assorted breads, and said Hoc est corpus meum (This is my body) – the Words of Institution from the eucharistic prayer. When the Archbishop of Paris heard what had happened, he bought up every baguette and croissant in the shop, and reverently consumed them.

This story reflects an understanding of priesthood and sacrament which we do not share, but it does raise questions about the power that is conferred in ordination. What will happen to Karen tonight when the Holy Spirit is called down, and the hands of bishop and priests are laid on her head? How will she be different? What is the nature of the gift she will receive?

Priesthood has a certain aura. You wear special vestments, preside over worship in the name of the whole assembly, and stand at altar and pulpit to speak for God and Christ as though you were heaven’s ambassador. You are called and set apart by God and the Church to do holy things.

Eventually, the doers of holy things are sometimes regarded as possessors of an occupational holiness. The distinctiveness of what priests do becomes a distinctiveness in who priests are. The parson is seen as a kind of model person.

At its best, this understanding of a priest as a walking icon of the Christian life has produced some remarkable saints, clergy who have indeed exemplified a godly life, clergy whose words, actions, and faithfulness manage to bring God a little closer. At its worst, this attribution of holiness to the priest has let everyone else off the hook. We don’t have to be faithful or devout. The priest does that for us.

But in our own day, we have been rediscovering, to our joy, the ministry of all the baptized. All of us, clergy and laity, are empowered and called to be ministers of the gospel, to be doers of the Word in all the times and places of our lives.

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable [i] – that’s on every Christian’s agenda. When the saints go marching in, we are all “in that number.”

Our common vocation as ministers was beautifully summarized by Paul Moore, the late bishop of New York. When he retired, his last words to his people were these: “You are messengers clothed in the beauty of God. Take hope, be strong, be brave, be free, be open, be loving, and hold up the vision of the Heavenly City.”

You are all messengers clothed in the beauty of God, and you will be reminded of that again tonight, when you renew your baptismal vows and are sprinkled with water from the baptismal font, in the hope that Isaiah’s cry may ever be on your own lips: Here am I; send me.

But if we are all ministers, then what is so distinctive about the role of priest? If your understanding of priesthood is purely functional, based on what a priest does, the ministry of the baptized creates a crisis of definition as more and more of the priest’s jobs are outsourced to the laity.

Parish administration, pastoral counseling, preaching, teaching, evangelism, social witness and outreach, worship planning and a great deal of worship leading can all be done by laypeople. There are really only three things that a priest can do that a layperson cannot: preside at the eucharist, pronounce God’s forgiveness after confession, and give God’s blessing.

Just these three things. But perhaps they are not such little things.
Bread, forgiveness, blessing.
The things that priests give, in the name of God, in the name of Christ.
Bread, forgiveness, blessing.

It’s actually quite a lot, really, requiring no less than everything – and a lifetime of preparation. Why a lifetime of preparation? Can’t anyone do these things? Speak some words, perform a few actions? Simple, yes. Easy, not so much.

Ritual is like art, requiring natural gifts, extensive training, and a deep grasp of the cluster of conditions that constitute ritual practice: theology, history, the meaning of sign and symbol, the nuances of body language, gesture and gaze, and so forth.

Karen comes to this calling with her own particular identity, her own unique blend of gifts and qualities. Priesthood is always an embodied phenomenon, something only realized in the form of particular persons. In that respect, each priest is different.

But when the Church sets a person apart in ordination, she becomes more than her individual self. Whenever Karen puts on her priestly stole, she will become 2000 years old, a public representative of the cumulative tradition and collective wisdom of the Church.

As priest, she will be a keeper and guardian of our sacred stories, whose task it is to tend the flame of their saving grace. At the same time, she is given the privilege of being entrusted with the stories of her people, helping them to understand that their own lives are also sacred stories.

The priestly role is not for everyone. It requires a delicate balance between self-awareness and transparency to Spirit, the sensitivity to be attuned not only to one’s own self but also to all the other selves in the room, and to the Holy One in whose presence we gather.

At the eucharist, who the presider is, and how the presider is, both have an effect on the assembly’s understanding of what is really going on when we gather to worship.

The performance of ritual doesn’t happen by accident. It is the product of charism, call and holiness of life. It is a full-time, serious business, as Richard Baxter insisted in the seventeenth century when he said to worship leaders:

[A]bove all be much in secret prayer and meditation. There you must fetch the heavenly fire that must kindle your sacrifices. Remember that you cannot decline and neglect your duty to your own hurt alone; many will be losers by it as well as you. For your people’s sake, therefore, look to your hearts… If [your hearts] be then cold, how [are they] likely to warm the hearts of [your] hearers?[ii]

In its essence, priesthood is a concrete and visible expression of belief: belief in the presence of God, and belief in the meaning and destiny of the eucharistic assembly as the body of Christ.

Every time the priest stands at the altar and says the holy words, the whole assembly is alerted to the fact that we all stand on the border between earth and heaven, the visible and the invisible. The border is where worship is conducted: it is where God gives us the bread of life and we offer in return “our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice”[iii] unto God.

The priest’s ritual words and actions make clear to the assembly what is going on at the border. It’s not a place where we escape the world; it’s where we discover just how sacred the world is. Ordinary bread and wine become the food of heaven and the cup of salvation.

As Gordon Lathrop puts it, the eucharistic assembly is “a hole in the fabric of things, through which life-giving power flows into the world.”[iv]

But the priestly work of bread, forgiveness and blessing is something that belongs to the entire body of Christ – not just the priest, not just this particular assembly, but the whole Church of God’s people throughout the world and throughout all time.

You and I are all priests in a cosmic sacrament, standing in the place of Christ, seeing with the eyes of Christ, in order to make visible and tangible the eucharistic nature of all things. As priests, we look at our neighbor with the most sacred attention – and intention – and say, This is my body, that is to say, Christ’s body.

We look at the stranger and say, This is my body.
We look at our enemy and say, This is my body.
We even look at bread and wine,
ordinary matter, the stuff of the universe,
and say, This is my body.

And so, to return to that bakery in Paris, we may assume that the bread was already sacred before the priest ever got there, and that every crumb was already worthy of reverent consumption. But we would never know these things had not Jesus, and every priest since, taken bread, said the blessing, broken it, and passed it around.

When I was preparing to preach this sermon, I emailed some of my ordained friends around the country, asking if they had any words of counsel or encouragement for a priest at the beginning of her journey.

One priest repeated what a Methodist minister told him at his own ordination 30 years ago: “You can’t help anybody in their relationship with God unless you are completely human.”

Another said that “who you are is infinitely more important to God and the world than the words you speak, the lists you complete or the sermons you write.”

A priest ordained for 46 years offered this advice: “Try to see [God’s people] the way God sees them.”

A seminary classmate who went on to become parish priest, cathedral dean, and diocesan bishop said, “Never leave or forget your diaconal calling. Jesus came as one who serves. As a priest, you must first of all be a servant.”

And a priest I’ve known since elementary school simply said, “Give all to God.”

I also asked my friends if they could provide a few words that distilled for them the essence of priesthood. One of the best teachers I’ve ever had – an Old Testament professor, seminary dean, parish rector, and priest for 63 years – described it this way:

living with and for sisters and brothers
being the body of christ
celebrating with brothers and sisters
word and sacrament and pastoral act
christ recalling us reshaping us refreshing us
being christ’s body for the world

A priest and poet who has worked since the 1960’s in parishes, campus ministry, foreign missions, and the national church office, offered this succinct couplet:

Everything we share is broken;
and yet we remember the whole and make it present.

Another longtime priest wrote: “Yours is to walk with people to the Mystery and back.”

 And finally, the canon to the ordinary in a Midwest diocese, a woman ordained five years ago, quoted a 16th century Sufi mystic:

Go where you are sent
Wait until you are shown what to do
Do it with your whole self
Remain until you have done what you were sent to do
Walk away with empty hands

Empty hands. I have loved this image ever since I first encountered it, just before my own ordination, in Robert Bresson’s film of the Georges Bernanos novel, Diary of a Country Priest.

The story, a retrospective account narrated with passages from a young priest’s journal, turns on a dramatic and transformative pastoral encounter with a parishioner. In one of the great scenes of cinema, fraught with a severe and holy beauty, we witness “a supernatural storm.”[v] And somehow, by what the young and inexperienced priest says to this woman, but even more by who he is, the woman’s hardened heart is broken open, and she is filled with grace and peace.

That night, the priest learns the woman has suddenly died. He hurries to the vigil where her body lies. We see him kneel by her bed to make the sign of the cross over her. At the same time, we hear his voice describe the moment as he would later record it in his journal:

“Be at peace,” I told her.
And she had knelt to
receive this peace.
May she keep it forever.
It will be I that gave it to her.
Oh miracle –
thus to be able to give
what we ourselves do not possess,
sweet miracle of our empty hands.

Sweet miracle of our empty hands. Let us pray that Karen, like every priest before her, may go to the altar of God, the God of her joy, with empty hands:

Hands that offer, and hands that receive,
hands that feed, and hands that heal,
hands that welcome, and hands that bless.

[i] Philippians 4:8

[ii] Christopher Cocksworth and Rosalind Brown, Being a Priest Today: Exploring Priestly Identity (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006), 150

[iii] From Thomas Cranmer’s 16th century eucharistic prayer, retained in Rite I of The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 336

[iv] Gordon Lathrop, q. in Graham Hughes, Worship as Meaning: A Liturgical Theology for Late Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 150

[v] André Bazin, trans. Hugh Gray, What is Cinema? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 137

The ten best religious films

DCP blessing2

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.

After the play is over

I just saw King Lear at the National Theater of London – via an HD broadcast at a Seattle cinema. Directed by Sam Mendes, with Simon Russell Beale in the lead, it had some fresh approaches, with mixed success. But for all that worked or didn’t work for this playgoer, the power of the text remained intact, just as the validity of the mass is independent of the presider’s worthiness.

The play’s opening crisis turns on Cordelia’s refusal to join in her sisters’ ‘glib and oily’ flatteries of their father the king. Lear, sensing the imminent waning of his vitality and power, has an insatiable need for reassurance, but the one daughter who truly loves him refuses to play that hypocritical game. The filial bond, she insists, goes without saying. In fact, no words can do it justice. Better to remain silent than say something inadequate or inexact. If only she had compromised a bit, tossed some verbal meat to her famished parent, she might never have come ‘between the dragon and his wrath.’ But she is as proud and stubborn as her sire, and so the dysfunctional Lear family begins to implode, plunging the kingdom – and all sense of stable, coherent reality – into the abyss.

Clare Asquith, in her controversial book Shadowplay, finds Shakespeare’s dramas full of pro-Catholic allusions and references to the political and religious situation of his time. The figure of an unwise ruler offered a salutary warning to James I, whose stern policies of religious conformity endangered English unity; Lear’s need for his daughters’ professions of loyalty mirrored the judicial interrogations of suspect Catholics and Puritans; the virtuous Edgar’s flight into wilderness and disguise suggested the plight of the Jesuit priests preserving the persecuted old faith in secret hiding places. Mendes’ version contains its own timely references, from the waterboarding torture of Gloucester to the implicit diagnosis of Lear’s madness as Lewy dementia.

But if the play were only “contemporary,” whether for a seventeenth-century audience or a twenty-first, it would not have the same power to haunt and trouble us. King Lear, in Martin Esslin’s words, provides “an image of aging and death, the waning of powers, the slipping away of our hold on our environment.” These are universals of the human condition, the dark foundation upon which any spirituality must be constructed. But even when we try to salvage something from the wreckage (Did Lear learn and grow from his suffering? Does it matter that two good men, Edgar and Kent, outlived the tragedy to bear witness?), the apocalyptic storm on the heath, reducing all our certainties to ‘nothing’ (a word repeated many times throughout the play), continues to echo long after the curtain falls.

But in the National Theater broadcast, there was no time for the themes to resonate once the play was done. After Edgar’s mournful speech (“The weight of this sad time we must obey, / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say…”), the stage went black. But before we could even begin to measure the weight of tragedy, the London audience began to applaud, the lights came up again, and the players, now smiling, returned to the stage to take their bows. Their characters had vanished, replaced by the contemporary personalities of the actors themselves. Such hasty return to ordinary life felt unseemly. Could we not linger in Lear’s universe a moment longer, let the emotion begin to settle and subside before politely pretending we had not just been ripped apart by the howling storm of Shakespeare’s text?

When, years ago, I saw Theatre du Soleil’s legendary production of Richard II, such a transition was in fact provided, for which I have always been grateful. The French company had performed in whiteface, with costumes and ritualized movements drawn from Japan’s kabuki theater. The ceremonial strangeness of the production utterly removed us from any sense of the familiar or natural. If we were not actually transported to a medieval Neverland of ritual and transcendent constraints, it certainly felt like it. And after the play’s stunning, tragic conclusion, the company took care not to wake us too quickly from that dream.

They did it by remaining in character. The whiteface still veiled their personalities, as any kind of mask does. While wearing a mask, you are not yourself, but the role. And their whitened faces remained intense and unsmiling, even as the applause thundered our Amen to the experience they had given us. It was still Richard and Bolingbroke on that stage, not some modern imposters. Even their bows, formal and liturgical rather than personal and spontaneous, prolonged the sense of gravity.

Performing arts, like religious ritual, strive to take us somewhere else, to give us something we might not receive in any other way. But too little attention is given to the transitions between ordinary life and the concentrated/consecrated space of a performance, whether artistic or liturgical. How does the environment we enter help us prepare for what is to come? And when the “play” is over, is there a way to linger, absorb, and reflect before it melts into thin air? I once saw Zubin Mehta, after conducting an emotional performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony” (even the musicians were wiping their eyes) keep his arms raised for a full 20 seconds after the last notes subsided, finally lowering them ever so slowly, in order to preserve a proper silence just long enough. But most performances – and liturgies – simply end with a jump cut (no slow dissolve!) back into whatever we were calling reality. As though nothing had transpired. As though we had not been changed.

What if (as I witnessed after a screening of Robert Bresson’s heartbreaking Au Hasard Balthasar) an audience just sat in stunned silence, not talking or moving for several minutes? What if (as at every Sunday mass with the radiant monks and nuns of Paris’ St. Gervais) you arrived at church twenty minutes early to find a hundred people already there, engaged in silent prayer? What if (as is common after Holy Week liturgies) the congregation exited the church without a word, still wrapped in the mystery of divine presence?