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With the Oscar season just behind us, it is striking that two major films of the year “12 Years a Slave” and “Philomena”—challenge us to face the past with spiritual courage so that our histories may be redeemed, rather than forgotten. In a separate story in this issue of our electronic news, Church Divinity School of the Pacific trustee and alumnus, the Rev. Dr. P. Donald White Jr., writes of a familial connection to “12 Years A Slave.” I reflect here on “Philomena,” in which the lead role, played by Judy Dench, offers a study in contrasting spiritualties. This leaves us with food for thought for the CDSP community, including those of us in leadership who are charged with the seminary’s mission of responding to contemporary society with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Recounting the true story of the Irish-Catholic Philomena Lee, and her search for the boy she had conceived decades earlier in an out of wedlock birth, the film follows the timeworn Hollywood practice of portraying the Church in an unsubtly villainous manner. What caught my attention is the presentation of spiritual ways of life right on the surface of the story. On the one hand, there is the spirituality of containment policy: holding onto rigid standards of truth and identity, and treating brokenness as taint or failure best forgotten. And of course, the outcome is resentment; duty grudgingly adhered to, joylessness. Caricature, yes, but anecdotal and demographic evidence would suggest it is part of our history and it has been rejected by youth turning away from the church in large numbers. On the other hand, Philomena Lee lives out a spirituality no less grounded in tradition, and she faces considerable suffering with an honest, open, even if wounded, heart. She refuses to forget the painful threads of her life, while hoping for redemption. Hers is a humble piety, not a self-assured one, and she is compassionate as she faces her own need for compassion.
One is a spirituality of overabundant “sin” consciousness, yet ironically moving to banish or forget as quickly as possible all evidence of sin's effects. In this view the darker aspects of human stories are kept hidden and in secret. The other view is open to spiritual trial and error, approaching life stories including its darker aspects, seriously and praying for grace to meet our brokenness.
As seminarians, theologians, laity and church leaders we are often confronted with two spiritualties drawn from the same Christian tradition: one that stays within the boundaries of how things are done. It is rule of life that no longer frees but pinches the spirit, born of fear that something, somewhere may go wrong. Another kind of leadership encourages rule of life in support of spiritual adventure and quest, despite the possibility (inevitability?) of failure and suffering. “Philomena” challenges us to look at the sometimes-painful truth of our histories. One of our own prayers is that we “… may be led into the way of truth.” (BCP, 814-15).
--The Very Rev. W Mark Richardson, PhD., Dean and President of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific