Philomena

1 03 2014

It had the best of messages. It had the worst of messages.

But before I go any further, let me offer this ‘spoiler alert’ — if you’ve not yet seen the movie, do not read any further!  For my thoughts may ruin it for you, and the film is too good for me to allow that to happen.  So go see it, and then come back and continue reading. 

My wife and I left the theater five hours ago and I’m still reflecting on one of this year’s Best PIcture nominees.  I’ve seen four of the other eight as well, and American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club and Nebraska can’t even begin to compare with the story of Philomena Lee.

As I watched, my anti-Roman Catholic bias was quickly evident.  I am well aware that to this day, 32 years after leaving the Roman Church, I tend to be overly critical of the church of my childhood.  I need to regularly remind myself of the great good that has been accomplished by the oldest of Christian traditions.  Countless hospitals, orphanages, educational institutions, and nursing homes have been established by Roman Catholics, and often in places most in need of them.  My own spiritual journey began in St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Lewiston, NY, and while I no longer say the rosary, pray to Mary, or believe in the infallibility of the pope, Catholicism started me on this great pilgrimage and I am grateful for all I learned there.

But none of the good excuses or lessens the horrors of the bad!  And this film paints them painfully well, for all to see.  The teachings, the guilt, the rigidity, the harshness, the cruelty, the stubbornness, the abuse . . . all in the name of God, offend anyone who dares to truly consider the role of religion and faith in the human experience.  Again and again I found myself cynically laughing at the characters’ experiences and their responses to them, and I shed tears that were born as much in anger as in sadness. 

“No wonder people are walking away from the church!” I kept thinking.  Anyone with any intelligence can see the absurdity of all the baggage that comes with institutionalized religion, and anyone with a mind can see the irrationality that plagues so much religious . . . well . . . nonsense!  Steven Coogan’s character, Martin Sixsmith, accurately speaks truth to Judi Dench’s character; and his anger and outrage that boil over in the film’s final scene had me wanting to burst into applause.

But then something happened — something completely unexpected — and something that touched a place deep within me.  

If I’m honest, I have to say that there was a part of me that wanted people to see the worst of the church.  So many of my brothers and sisters today continue to close their eyes to our past, refuse to acknowledge the current need for change, and thus fail to grasp the precariousness of the church’s future if we continue to teach morality before love and put sin before grace.  Philomena puts the worst of the church for all the world to see (as if people today really need Hollywood to lift up our hypocrisy!) and there was a side of me that took great pleasure in that kind of a message.  And so was excited as she prepared to lash out, and embrace the anger, and outrage, and bitterness that she had every right to embrace. 

But, she didn’t!  And that’s when she reminded me why I still love the Church as much as I do.  That’s when the best of the church, and faith, and God, began to shine.

If anyone had the right to walk away from the church, Philomena did!  It had abused her in ways that are unconscionable and she had every reason to give up on God long ago!  But she didn’t.  If anyone had reason to leave faith behind, Philomena did!  But she didn’t!  Her walk with God had opened her to the miracle of living in communion with the Spirit, and the forgiveness that she extended to the very ones responsible for the great pain of her life, revealed why the Church remains the most important institution in our world today.

Are we perfect?  No way!  Have we made terrible mistakes in the past, and will there be times when we fail miserably in the future?  Of course!  But the Church is still the place that, by God’s grace and mercy, changes lives.  When we truly keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, human hearts are transformed, and infused with a perseverance that can move mountains and a joy that is unspeakable.  As we seek to walk in the steps of the carpenter from Nazareth, we are empowered to love the unlovable and to forgive the unforgiveable.  And in our attempts to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, we take an important step in living into God’s kingdom here on earth.

Philomena accurately reveals the dark side of the Church.  But that darkness is overshadowed by the power of the Spirit — the Spirit of God — that makes forgiveness possible, and that frees us to live with joy, and love, and peace.

The Oscar will probably not go to Philomena!  But it should.  So go see it!  And discover again, or perhaps for the first time, the power of God, the beauty of faith, and the importance of the Church!           


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One response

28 03 2014
Keith Gilbert

Thank you for your comments! I haven’t seen this movie, but definitely agree with the part where you said that the church is basically in trouble if we keep putting morality before love and sin before grace. Keep writing and thanks!

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