Sunday, August 17, 2014

Calvary: Talking Films at Evensong

Choral Evensong 17 August 2014

One of the joys of Choral Evensong is the challenge to produce a brief reflection and perhaps, ideally, work with something unexpected.  It is very different from reflections in the Eucharist. 

How do we make sense of the chaos of our world?  Let me share some thoughts on a film I watched recently while being tossed about in a plane above the Tasman.

The film is called Calvary and  is set in Ireland, Sligo; it stars Brendan Gleeson (Mad Eye in the Harry Potters) as Father James, a late vocation village priest.  After his wife died and he recovered from alcoholism, James had left his grown up daughter and entered the priesthood.  So he comes to his rural Irish parish with a real grasp of the world; sports a soutane and drives a sports car, dotes on his dog. 

(credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

It is here we start to discover the contours and closeness of Calvary.

The film begins with a screen text – unsettling paradox attributed to St Augustine:  “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”

The first view we have of Fr James begins to make Calvary present to us.  He is sitting in the confessional as one of his people (unseen by us but known to the priest as it is a small village) comes to make confession. 

He begins by saying, “ I’m going to kill you Father.”

To this Father James responds, with an admirable dry composure “Certainly a startling opening line."

What follows is the disclosure that the penitent as a child was a victim of rape and abuse by a priest.  His abuser, he goes on to say, is now dead but he seeks some form of revenge. So he plans to kill Father James, but he will give him a week to “put his house in order.”

But why target Father James?

Because, says the parishioner, killing an innocent priest will have more impact and serve as more of a parallel to what happened to him years before than going after a more deserving sinner.  Now the meaning of Calvary becomes almost explicit as Fr James takes upon himself all the weight and shame of the Irish Church's story of abuse as he prepares to suffer for what another did.

So, in the week that he has been given, Father James walks his via dolorosa.  He comes to know his daughter better as she visits him but through the week he endures the mad, funny and dark world of his small Irish parish as it batters and mocks  its priest.  There is the cuckolded butcher Jack Brennan, his unfaithful wife Veronica and Simon, the Ghana-born man she has gotten involved with. Also Dr. Frank Harte, a cynical physician who mocks the priest's faith with medical horror stories, and Michael Fitzgerald, a wealthy landowner who seems to find no meaning in anything he owns or does.  All seem to resent his hold on faith.

Just as Christ walked to the cross, spattered and smeared by the mockery of the city, so Fr James makes his way through the mockery and malice of his people and, steadfast to the end, waits on the beach for his executioner – unsure whether he will live or die.

There is no reprieve, no change of heart, no rescue – he is shot.

The Augustine quote must be remembered: “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”

To the casual viewer this looks like futility; a history that has no hope, no meaning; an action in which God has remained silent or absent.

Except, though no stone is rolled from any tomb, something seems to have shifted or moved in some way.   No words are uttered, but in the visiting space of the prison where Father James’ murderer waits, a door opens and we see his daughter – she has come to visit her father’s killer.  They eye each other and she picks up the handset so that they may speak.

The flame of grace flickers:   “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”

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