In the person of Jesus Christ, the God who created and sustains the universe has become fully human. Under-stated, largely unnoticed, Monday just gone was the pivot-point between Christmas, where God submits God-self to our birth; and Easter, where God submits God-self to our death. Known to some as Candlemas, it is the day on which church candles are blessed – the pliable substance of the wax; the fragile wick – and we are reminded of the call of flesh-and-blood, in our fragility, to be trimmed in the course of every-day life in order that we might be, together, lights in the sometime darkness of our world.
For several converging pastoral reasons, I’ve been attending to – seeking to notice – life and death recently. As part of learning to do that better, I’ve watched two films: Of Gods and Men, and Calvary. Both are exceptional examples of cinematic storytelling (though, health-warning: both are harrowing viewing, 15 Certificate).
Of Gods and Men (dialogue in French and Arabic, with English sub-titles) is inspired by the true events concerning a group of Trappist Cistercian monks living in Algeria in the 1990s. They farm their land, selling produce at the local market, contributing to the local economy. One of their number is a doctor, providing primary healthcare for the villagers. They celebrate, lament, puzzle over, and wrestle with life – and, inevitably, death – with their Muslim neighbours. (Apart from anything else, this is a beautiful example of shared life and deep affection between Muslims and Christians; a story that needs to be both told and modelled.) Their nights and days are punctuated with communal prayer. As terrorist activity threatens the community, they wrestle with the decision whether to return to France or stay with their neighbours. Choosing to remain eventually costs seven of their number their lives.
In one scene, set in the chapel, the monks chant:
‘Because he is with us in this time of violence | Let us not dream that he is everywhere | Other than where we die | Let us make haste | Let us draw patience from him | Let us turn to the Man of Sorrows | Who beckons us from the cross …’
This is a slow, deliberate, and touching film – because only by living slowly and deliberately enough can we see God hiding in plain view, can we see Christ in the face of our neighbour. Only by daring to enter into life – knowing that it will cost us everything because it will open us up to death – and only by daring to enter into death in the footsteps of the Man of Sorrows, can we meet the God who submitted God-self to our birth and our death, that in our living and our dying we might be held fast in Love. This is mystery.
Calvary is a work of fiction, a ‘dark comedy,’ full of both cynical and ironic humour but also insightful in its observation of people and profound in its humanity. It opens in the confessional, where Father James Lavelle is given notice that he will be murdered in a week’s time – time sympathetically, apologetically, given to put his affairs in order. A young boy was sexually abused by another since-dead Catholic priest; now, as an adult, he will kill a ‘good priest,’ an innocent man, as carefully considered response to this moral outrage that cannot be put right – a response so shocking that it might just purge that which no one is willing or able to face.
On the face of it, Father James walks through his final days no different from those that would have come before: walking slowly and deliberately through his parish, alongside his parishioners, with tenderness and sadness, puzzlement and wonder – deliberating when to listen, when to speak out, when to walk away in such a way that opens a way back for others if they will take it, even if he does not have all the time in the world; for his choice not to abandon his community is, paradoxically, a choice to leave them – as himself – in God’s hands. He makes peace with his daughter, who had felt that she had lost her father to the priesthood having already lost her mother to cancer; makes peace with himself (something that is neither easy, nor linear), and encourages others to do likewise (at times, through confrontation he has previously avoided).
In their last and most honest conversation, he tells his daughter: ‘I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues.’ Fiona Lavelle: ‘What would be your number one?’ Father James: ‘I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.’ There lies the key to making peace with oneself, to pursuing peace with others (and most of the characters wrestle with one or the other, or both).
In one scene, Father James sits in the hospital chapel with the French widow of a tourist killed in a car crash which left her physically unscathed; the tone of their conversation is thoughtful and compassionate, lacking any cynicism or malice:
Father James: ‘Everybody knows it’s coming …
… It is never easy. More understandable [when the elderly die], let’s say. Less unfair … Situations like this one, people are shocked, the randomness of it. They curse God, curse their fellow man; they lose their faith in some cases.’
Theresa: ‘They lose their faith … It must not have been much of a faith to begin with, if it is so easy for them to lose it.’
Father James: ‘Yes. But what is faith? For most people, it is the fear of death, nothing more than that. If that is all it is, it’s very easy to lose.
‘He was a good man, your husband?’
Theresa: ‘Yes. He was a good man. We had a very good life together. We loved each other very much. And now, he has gone. And that is not unfair. That is just what happened. But many people don’t live good lives; they don’t feel love. That is what is unfair … I feel sorry for them.’
Their response is to pray together, with shared words that remind those who pray them that our living and our dying is bound-together with the God who submits God-self to the same. Again, this is mystery. And again, like the rhythm of communal prayer in the monastery Notre-Dame de l’Atlas, Tibhirine, what is rehearsed in the light hours of the inherent, God-gifted goodness of life – rehearsed, through disciplines of prayer, of thankfulness, of giving of ourselves and beholding others with delight – keeps the wax and wick of our lives trimmed ready for the inevitable dark hours.
I am not a Roman Catholic. But, in needing to learn to slow down, in needing to attend to what I so easily fail to notice – in needing not only to attend to life and death, but in needing to attend life and death, to participate – in needing to respond to the invitation to become more fully human, I am nonetheless gratefully indebted to that tradition of the Church, both lived and given expression through fiction.