Thursday, August 4, 2011
"The Island": We’re All On It
“What church?” the other volunteer asked. “St. Mary’s Catholic Church, downtown,” I answered. “I used to be a Catholic, but now I’m a Lutheran,” the volunteer told me. She said she likes her minister. “If she ever left,” she said, “I would probably look for another church. For me, it’s not about religion, I guess. You know, I left the Catholic Church because it was all about judgment and guilt and punishment. I’ve had enough of that.”
That’s one of the arguments you hear often from collapsed Catholics. It's all about guilt. Every priest is Father Mapple, railing from the pulpit about hellfire and damnation. . . . I generally don’t argue these cases. I’m not sure enough of my self or theology or even faith sometimes, and I have no idea where such an argument will lead. So I usually do what I did yesterday: shrug and smile.
Two hours later, my wife and I visited a friend who is dying of brain cancer, at home, tended by hospice workers and a large family. Joan is a lifelong Catholic, and she is dying peacefully. Her household is periodically chaotic, with seven children, various in-laws and outlaws, grandchildren, parish friends, and priests coming and going. Joan lies on the sofa in the living room, an oxygen hose under her nose. She is aware of every word that passes her ears, and she recognizes every visitor. She says a few words when she wants to, but yesterday she didn’t open her eyes.
This was probably our last visit with Joan. For my wife, whose own mother died of brain cancer 27 years ago, the visit was particularly moving. As for me, I thought of the Lutheran volunteer at the lobster festival.
Then yesterday evening I saw “The Island.” My friends Elizabeth and Michael have been hosting a Catholic Film Festival in our parish this summer. The 2006 Russian film about monks in a remote outpost was the latest entry, recommended by our CL friend Roberto. So far, it gets my top rating, and this morning it had me thinking again about my Lutheran volunteer friend. Netflix it if you can.
“The Island” stars Pyotr Mamonov, Russian rock star and Russian Orthodox convert (pictured above), as Father Anatoly, the fool for God charged with stoking the monastery’s furnace. We learn in the first scene of the movie (no spoilers here) that he committed a terrible sin during World War II; was rescued by the monks of this community; and now, 34 years later, is their resident dogsbody and starets.
Father Anatoly is hounded by guilt. Two scenes suggest that he spends his every waking moment silently reciting the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The rest of the film tells us two things about sin and guilt and judgment.
The first thing is that they are always with us—not because God or our local priest is judging us, but above all because we judge ourselves. The burden of being human, which means the burden of being a sinner, is so great that I have to find relief. Some typical solutions are drink, drug, self-help books, or a minister who makes me feel good about myself, who tells me everything will be OK.
The second thing is that the Church’s solution to sin—repentance, prayer, the Sacraments—is singularly effective. It will not necessarily dull the pain. Father Anatoly suffers in every single scene of “The Island” (although he shows a prankster’s sense of humor). He also performs miracles, and then he dies, like my friend Joan, with peace and dignity.
Life gives us these moments: lobster festival, dying friend, film. We make of them what we can, or we look away.