“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
Isaiah 6: 5-8
Teresa: Have you performed the last rites many times?
Father James: Yes. Usually with older people, of course. They have time to prepare for it. Everybody knows it’s coming.
Teresa: It is easier?
Father James: It’s never easy. More understandable, I’d say.
Teresa: Less unfair.
Father James: In situations like this one, people are shocked. The randomness of it. They curse God. They curse their fellow man. They lose their faith in some cases.
Teresa: They lose their faith? It must not have been much of a faith to begin with.
“In this world you will have trouble…”
This has been only too true this Advent season. Seemingly every other day dawns on new atrocity, fresh pain and frustration stirring up the whole spectrum of human responses: fear, compassion, shock, protest, anguish, bitterness, judgment, guilt, and on and on and on. How can we muster up the spirit to lean into this world day after day?
Like Truman Burbank, we sense that deep down, something is amiss in our world, and in our selves, too. We cry out in horror, “It’s 2015, people!” assuming that the world should simply get better as we become more cultured, civilized, educated. But can we apply that same logic to ourselves? Do I gain integrity the more I learn about the world? In fact I find quite the opposite. If I have grown more generous, I have also grown more calculating; if more self-controlled, more callous; if less wrathful, more sarcastic. If I no longer swing a broadsword in conflict, it is because I have grown accurate with darts. I have not the patience to bear with deep-seated problems, especially once they get inconvenient, which is precisely when Atticus Finch leaned in. All to often I put my personal comfort at the forefront of my desires, chasing a “beloved” too dull to inspire a hope like Guido’s. As I become more “learned” in the ways of the world, I do not become more moral.
We can also look beyond our own lives to uncover the untruth inherent in this philosophy of progress: medical experiments performed on concentration camp prisoners by M.D.’s, terrorist organizations with graphic design teams, the sexual abuse of children by clerics, and so much more. How do we bear up upon becoming aware of, or even suffering from, these tragedies?
This question is very much at the heart of John Michael Donagh’s haunting film, Calvary. Father James (Brendan Gleeson), a stolid Irish Catholic priest has chosen a simple life serving a parish in a remote coastal village, only his dog and a crucifix to his name. Taking confession one day, an unknown man confesses to having been violently molested by a priest when he was a boy. The Church’s betrayal of his innocence seared into the man a fatal cynicism, which he expresses by declaring that in seven days, he is going to kill a good priest, Father James. The man leaves, and the rest of the film follows James attempting to navigate with integrity a world brimming with bitterness towards his office. When watching this film, we recognize the full spectrum of human responses to the painful realities of this world played out in the lives of the townspeople. Eventually we realize that any of James’ parishioners could be the unknown man, marred as they are by past wounds and bearing with them cauldrons of roiling acrimony. Slowly James, and the viewer with him, comes to grips with the deep human cost of his institution’s failure to steward faithfully their vocations, both in the acts of abuse and in the subsequent cover-ups.
Father James’ struggle resonates deeply with the Advent theme of Revelation. We are called to be salt and light to the earth, carrying the good news of the Gospel to the world; at the same time, we are deeply flawed and rarely even able to carry out our own will, let alone God’s. What does faithfulness look like in light of this pervasive tension? Calvary offers one vision for what that might look like, but like a parable of Jesus, it leaves us with more questions than answers. We must then, like Father James, move humbly forward within the reality of Advent and Christmas and Good Friday and Easter:
“…But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
- What are the traits that define Father James as a character?
- What are the different reactions to brokenness the film portrays?
- What does this film have to say about culpability? Who is to blame for what transpires?
- Should we be accountable for the sins of those who came before us? How could that play into other vocations?
- What does this film have to say about our role in the revelation of God’s Kingdom on earth?
- Is this film better fit for Advent or Good Friday? Why or why not?
Drew Masterson is the Director of Digital Communications at The Washington Institute, as well as an Assistant Producer at Citygate Films.