Ultreia!

Camino de Santiago, west of Pamplona.

 

The Religious Imagineer is five years old this week. It began during my 500-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in the spring of 2014, with dispatches on miles I walked, things I saw, people I met, thoughts I had.

No great views today, but the summit where France turns to Spain was a brooding cloud of unknowing where we walked by faith not sight. (April 8, the first day)

 

Crossing the Pyrenees on the first day.

 

The land through which we pilgrims passed today was painted with a few strong colors: dark green wheat, yellow mustard, blue sky, white clouds. Those four colors filled the eye in every direction, with no lesser hues to dilute the effect. To wander through such a scene was a glorious thing. Whatever else the Camino brings, I will have had this day. As a German woman said as she passed me by, “Cherish every step! Cherish every step!” (April 11)

 

Pilgrims moving westward from Castrojeriz.

 

[A 30-second video of my shadow moving along the Camino]: If you want to experience the length of my walk in real time, replay this video 27,000 times. (April 25)

 

Few trees, big sky, only occasional villages, and long stretches where the only human presence was the long procession of pilgrims migrating westward. The lack of distractions and variations tends to make the very act of walking to be the mind’s principal occupation. As Robert Macfarlane puts it in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, walking becomes “sensational” – it isn’t just conducive to thought, it becomes the form thought takes. I walk, therefore I am. Perhaps it is similar to the way that cinema thinks through the movement of the camera. It isn’t forming propositional thought, but is simply absorbing through its attentive motion the shape of the world, the textures of existence. (April 29)

 

Fellow pilgrim Edward “Monty” Montgomery enters San Juan de Ortega on Good Friday.

 

There are many along this road who began it as a form of athletic challenge or youthful adventure or unusual vacation. And many will finish it that way. But in talking with those who profess no religious intention, or who are dismissive of Christianity as something they outgrew, I still hear the spiritual language of pilgrimage breaking through the verities of secularism. One has lost a job and is trying to discern a meaningful alternative. Another is trying to listen to her life from a place of unknowing. Another has no answer to the question of why he is walking, but still presses on to Santiago. To borrow a phrase from the great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, every pilgrim is trying to arrive at a place we know not by following a way which we know not. (May 1)

 

Halfway to Santiago, a Camino friend was feeling some pain and discouragement on a particularly demanding stretch. But then he saw a handwritten sign: “Don’t give up before the miracle.” (May 7)

 

 

But can I, having now trod 478 miles in 31 days, really claim any kind of illumination or transformation as a result? I still get annoyed by the loud and incessant talkers who mar the tranquility, I still get angry when a speeding truck comes close to knocking me into a ditch. I have yet to perfect the pilgrim equanimity urged by my guidebook, which sees every irritation as the sand that produces the pearl. But at least I try to make these things part of my walking prayer. As the monks say of life in the monastery, “We fall down and get up, fall down and get up …” (May 9)

 

This morning I performed the final Camino ritual: climbing the stairs behind the altar to hug the gleaming metal effigy of Santiago. Despite the cool hardness of the sculpture, it was strangely comforting. I whispered in the saint’s ear: “Thank you for the beautiful voyage.” (May 12)

 

Statue of St. James behind the high altar, Cathedral of Santiago.

After I reached Camino’s ultimate end in Muxia, on the western shore of northern Spain, my blog just kept on going, continuing its own pilgrimage to God knows where, reporting as it goes. I have written about theology, spirituality, liturgy, poetry, the arts, cinema, music, politics, culture, nature, seasons, time, death and resurrection. My topics––and my influences––may be eclectic, but I trust my Christian faith and Anglican temperament to lend some coherence to these verbal wanderings.

In that spirit, I borrowed my blog’s subtitle from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “Where the fire and the rose are one.” This union of contraries––passion and tenderness, danger and beauty, wild instability and serene form––draws upon Dante’s imagery in the Commedia. Fire is purgation, divine light and the flame of love. The rose, perhaps inspired by the rose window of an Italian cathedral, images the heavenly city, containing a multitude of saints within its harmonizing circle. Dante unites flame and flower in his image of the Virgin, whose “womb relit the flame of love––/ its heat has made this blossom seed / and flower in eternal peace” (Par. xxxiii.7-9). In the unfolding future of God’s not-yet, the fire and the rose will indeed be one.

Gustave Dore, The Celestial Rose in Dante’s Paradise (1868)

In The Religious Imagineer’s first five years, there have been 237 posts, 61,913 visitors and 92,870 views. My ten most viewed posts so far have been:

1) The ten best Jesus movies (Jan. 6, 2015)–– I have taught Jesus movies for years, and find cinematic gospels, despite (or because of?) their flaws, to be fascinating case studies for questions of biblical representation and interpretation, as well as Christology.

2) Members of the same body? A post-election homily (Nov. 10, 2016) –– “Can we truly delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together? In one of the darkest moments in American history, this is the work we have been given to do.”

3) Ten ways to keep a holy Advent (Dec. 6, 2014) –– Interrupting, Silencing, Waiting, Listening, Watching, Praying, Reflecting, Loving, Giving, Receiving.

4) A deep but dazzling darkness (Aug. 25, 2017) –– My account of the 2017 eclipse, seen through the lens of mystical theology, continues to find readers almost every day. It has been viewed on more total days than any other post.

5) You can never go fast enough (Sept. 9, 2014) –– This mix of classic cars, road trips, nostalgia and eschatology got a huge amount of traffic when it became a WordPress editors’ pick.

6) 7 spiritual practices: a to-do list for the time of trial (Nov. 18, 2016) –– This brief guide to engaging the powers of darkness without losing our own souls remains all too relevant.

7) Dreaming the church that wants to be (Oct. 7, 2015) –– Eleven Christian artists gathered for 10 days in Venice to imagine a rebirth of wonder among God’s friends. This prologue, and the several posts that followed it, emerged from that quest.

8) The ten best religious films (Oct. 8, 2014) –– “Most of these films refuse the usual manipulations and excitements of mass cinema, and demand a contemplative mind. Transcendental style can be as rigorous as prayer.”

9) The spirituality of running (Aug. 4, 2016) –– A subject dear to my runner’s heart. “What we do with our bodies manifests and expresses inner states, the sacred ground of our being. But bodily practices can also induceinner states. How we move, how we sit, how we breathe, can all make a difference in our spiritual life. Inner and outer are intertwined and interactive. We pray in, with, through our bodies.”

10) Hospital for the soul (April 24, 2014) –– One of my earliest posts concerns a house of hospitality where pilgrims find momentary respite from the Camino’s onward rush. “Everyone is welcome here,” I was told, “but it’s not for everyone. Many people hurry along the Camino who show little interest in the work of the soul.”

Of the top ten, three are on spiritual practice, three are about movies, three are about widely shared experiences (the Camino, the eclipse, and our current political “time of trial”). And three include a number in the title, always a hit with the search engines!

If you want to explore further in these writings, enter a subject in the Search box, such as “Cinema,” “Nature,” “Liturgy and worship,” or “Imagination,” and you will find a range of selections. Or as we enter Holy Week, you might try “What Shall We Preach on Easter Sunday?” (currently featured in the April 10 issue of The Christian Century) or “Just a dream?­­––Reflections on the Easter Vigil.”

I am grateful to you, dear readers, for joining me in this journey of words and thoughts over the past five years. I deeply appreciate your attentive reading and supportive comments. And if you would like to help me expand the reach of this writing ministry by sharing your favorite posts now and then (share buttons are at the bottom of individual posts), that would be an awesome anniversary gift!

And now, as we say on the Camino, “Ultreia!” (“Let’s go further!”). In the days to come, I will always strive to be worthy of your time.

The author at Camino’s end in Muxia.

All photographs by Jim Friedrich

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.