“PHILOMENA,” THE CHURCH, AND THE NATURE OF FORGIVENESS

By Paul

In case you haven’t seen the wonderful Judith Dench/Steven Coogan film entitled “Philomena,” let me start off with a brief summary (hopefully without giving too much away).  A young Irish woman conceives a child out-of-wedlock in 1960’s Ireland.  In those days, the sin and shame of such a birth were tremendous, and girls who did so (who “took their nickers down,” in the scolding and remonstrative words of one of the nuns) were outcasts of society.  The girl, Philomena, was packed off to a convent that specialized in these things, and there under the care of the nuns she had her baby.  Forced to sign an agreement to give the child up for adoption, she was not even afforded an opportunity to say goodbye to her baby, when a wealthy couple from America comes to adopt the boy.  The pain of the separation was almost unbearable for the young girl, but her troubles were not over. As were all of the girls, Philomena was forced to work afterwards for 4 more years, doing backbreaking menial labor in order to “pay the nuns back” for all they had supposedly done for her.  Fast-forward 50 years, and the now almost 70 old Philomena still longs to find her son.  The main events of the movie, in fact, revolve around that search, facilitated by a reporter, who eventually took Philomena to the United States to find him.  I hesitate to say much more, for those of you who have not seen the movie (and I hope you will), except to report that, in the end, there was skullduggery enough on the part of the “good nuns” at the abbey to make the reporter justifiably very angry.  Philomena herself, however, in this reenactment of a true story, is somehow able to reach within and find forgiveness for those who had hurt her, and her son, so profoundly.

There is no doubt that the Catholic Church – and to be fair, I suppose, most churches and much of organized religion – has a lot to answer for.  From the Church’s sometimes ambivalent historical stance on slavery (at one point, bishops preached that there were “just” and “unjust” forms of slavery), to the giving of “cover” for the conquest of the Americas by the European powers (the pagan “savage” Indians after all had to be taught the “true religion”), to the crimes supported and even committed by the Church against the Jews over the ages, to the terrible things the last pope said about gay people and the Church’s continuing disparaging of gay relationships, to its forbidding of all forms of birth control (in spite of run-away world overpopulation), to the subjugation of women and their exclusion from the priesthood, to the hiding of sexual predation by priests on the part of local bishops, and on and on.  It is not too strong a statement to say that some of these at least could be thought of as crimes against humanity.

Having spent a number of years in a Catholic monastery in my own early life (I went willingly, however), I saw some of this up close.  The scolding, reprimanding, and reproachful orientation to life we witness on the part of the nuns in “Philomena” did not come from nowhere.  With Vatican II and the papacy of the more human John XXIII, it looked at first as though the Church was finally making a shift and entering more fully into the modern era.  Much of this ascendant promise, however, was soon rescinded during the reigns of various popes that followed, from Paul VI to Benedict XVI.

But what of the Church nowadays?  Is it still mired in the rhetoric and rigidity of post-reformation thinking?  It could be argued that most members of the hierarchy are indeed bogged down in such a doctrinal quagmire.  And whether the new pope, who at least has a more tolerant affect, will in the end bring about real change is yet to be seen.  To be sure, there seems to be something of a split between Catholics who live in the United States and Europe, and those living in Africa and Asia, with the faithful in South America falling somewhere in between, depending on the question.  Here is just a sampling of a recent poll taken among Catholics in these areas.  On the question, “Do you think women should be allowed to become priests?” 64% of Europeans and 59% of Catholics in the US agreed they should be given that opportunity.  However, the split was almost even in South America, 49% for and 47% against, while 76% in the Philippines and 80% of Africans said women should not have the right.  As far as the use of contraceptives is concerned, 86% of Europeans, 79% of US Catholics, and 91% of those in South America say it should be allowed, whereas only 44% of Africans and 31% of Philippinos agree.  Finally, in regard to gay marriage, 38% of Europeans and 37% of South American Catholics favor allowing it, while 54% of the US faithful are in favor; a mere 14% of those in the Philippines say they are for allowing gays to marry, and amazingly in Africa those in favor barely register at 1% of Catholics.

All this amounts to a church in transition, with many push-pull factors splitting congregations in various parts of the world.  Perhaps, who knows, at some point it might even lead to a new division in the Catholic Church, just as the Anglican community risks these days?  Interestingly, too, much of this mirrors the larger political rift we see in the United States now between progressive Democrats and ultra-conservative Tea Party Republicans.  How many are there left anymore in the middle?

Toward the end of the movie, Philomena and the reporter, played by Steve Coogan, are back at the abbey in Ireland.  Some of the same sisters who were in charge when Philomena was a young, pregnant teenager there are still alive.  In a wrenching scene, the reporter reprimands and lambasts these nuns for what they had done.  But Philomena, who has remained a faithful Catholic all these years in spite of everything, stops him.  She feels as much compassion for him as she does for the nuns, it would seem, these same nuns who had traumatized her so, and says to the reporter, “it must be exhausting carrying around so much anger.”

In the end, I wondered, which one does any of us wish to be more like, Philomena or the reporter? Of course, to be sure who among us has not experienced denigration and disparagement aplenty in life?  But does it do any good to hold on to old wounds and deep grudges from the past? No doubt, it’s easy enough to say that it doesn’t, but it is a far more difficult thing to let go of pain, especially pain we feel has been unjustly inflicted.  We hold it like a wounded child, injured and trembling in our arms.  We hope that, by holding it so, we may somehow soothe its fears, its grief, its despair.  Then, feeling the injustice of the child’s undeserved pain, it is all too easy for heartbreak to turn to rage, and to lash out at a cold and unfeeling world for what it has done.

What makes Philomena able to forgive so profound an injury, but the reporter, who feels for Philomena, seemingly unable to do so?  This may be the key question the movie poses: how and whom to forgive, and under what circumstances.  The film does not answer this larger question, but it does give us examples of how two individuals react to injustice, one with justified anger, and the other with compassion and forgiveness.  That said, the film is also not suggesting that it is all right for people to inflict pain on others, or that there should be no consequences to such actions.  The one nun who had played such a pivotal and damaging role in Philomena’s early life, now 50 years later, comes across as a bitter, morose, dispirited, and deeply unhappy old woman.    In this sense, then, consequences may well have come of their own accord, without anyone else having to hasten or enhance them.

So, what lessons may we draw from all this?  Speaking for myself alone, I know I often vacillate between forbearance and wrath, between mercy and outrage, between compassion and blame.   In theoretical physics, or so I have learned from reading about the topic, mathematical calculations can sometimes be so enormously complicated and vexing that reasonable approximations may be the best we can ever expect.  As Brian Greene, author of “The Hidden Reality” puts it, “the art of physics lies in deciding what to ignore.”  Maybe the same could be said about life in general.  Sometimes we have to learn what to ignore, what not to concentrate on, and what ultimately to let go of.

As much as I may fail at it time and time again, I think my preference always would be to try to act more like Philomena than her angry companion.  To be sure, it’s nice to be right, to fell as though we are correct in our judgments, and even our condemnations, but in the end it may just be nicer to live a life of compassion and forgiveness.  After all, as Philomena says, why exhaust ourselves?  And who knows?  Maybe someday we’ll be the ones in need of reprieve, and it is we who will be glad for those who give us a pass and ignore our weaknesses, our imperfections, and what are surely our own unfortunate shortcomings.

WHAT’S ON YOUR READING LIST?

By Paul

My partner, Andy, always says I’m crazy (probably for lots of good reasons), but in this particular instance because I’ve long had the habit of keeping a stack of books that I am reading “all at once.”  Of course, what I mean by that is I pick one or the other up, depending on exactly what my mood is and what more or less appeals to me in the moment.  I don’t know why this sounds so strange, but people have often remarked that it does seem odd to them, and yet it feels to me like the most natural thing in the world

Here, for example, is a list of some things I have on my reading table right now, with a few comments about each of the books and about what I find interesting in them.  They are listed in no special order:

  • IDEAS AND OPINIONS, Albert Einstein – here is a book for the ages, if ever there was one.  Who knew that Einstein wrote and lectured widely, not only about Physics and higher Mathematics, but about a much wider swath of life’s concerns.  His interests encompassed such wide-ranging topics as Good and Evil, Wealth, Society and Personality, Academic Freedom, Human Rights, Politics, Government and Pacifism, the Jewish People, Germany, and Science and Religion.  In regard to the latter topic, here is one of the things he has to say:  “In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests.  In their labors they have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself.  This is, to be sure, a more difficult, but an incomparably more worthy task.  After religious teachers accomplish the refining process indicated they will surely recognize with joy that true religion has been ennobled and made more profound by scientific knowledge.”  These kinds of thoughts by the great Albert Einstein are what I read when I am tired of hearing about Vatican power politics, or about evangelical small-minded bigotry, and I want instead to be uplifted by a bit of real wisdom.  Here, too, simply for your enjoyment and edification, are a few more quotes from the great man: (Speaking of Marie Curie) “Once she had recognized a certain way as the right one, she pursued it without compromise and with extreme tenacity.  The greatest scientific deed of her life – proving the existence of radioactive elements and isolating them – owes its accomplishment not merely to bold intuition but to a devotion and tenacity in execution under the most extreme hardships imaginable, such as the history of experimental science has not often witnessed”;  (and of Mahatma Gandhi) “(A) man who has confronted the brutality of Europe with the dignity of the simple human being, and thus at all times risen superior.  Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”  These are phrases that ring true and remain in the mind.   They are always worth reading.
  • ON THE NATURE OF THINGS  (De Rerum Natura), Titus Lucretius Carus – this is a long poem, written in Latin in the first century BCE* by one of the greatest proponents of what came to be known as Epicurean philosophy.  Stripped of all jargon, and in its simplest form, such an approach to life consisted of living simply and frugally with a contented mind.  However, it must be said that, aside from this contented mind, Lucretius also had a most inquisitive one.  Read his Book I, as an example, for an amazing explanation of what the atom is, and remember that this was written well over 2,000 years ago, without the benefit of any scientific instrumentation.  Basically, Lucretius’s lab consisted of nature, and of his clear-minded, dispassionate observation thereof.  Due to his unparalleled deductive abilities, he was able to speak authoritatively of both matter and space (the void, as he refers to it), as well as the indestructibility of matter.  Not that he claims of course that bodies themselves cannot, and do not, die; rather he speaks about their irreducibly tiniest component parts, atoms, and describes how they are themselves impervious to further disintegration.  As he says, “Now physical things are either first-beginnings/Or what their congresses unite to make./As for the first-beginnings, the atoms, no force can quell them; their tough walls outlast all blows; though at first it seems doubtful that in objects/The fundamentally solid can be found.”  Even though today we know that atoms themselves can be broken down into yet smaller component parts, can you imagine the power of the human mind to discern such information before science and the scientific method had its real beginnings?  Lucretius does, he says, believe in the gods, but only as remote beings who are “withdrawn and far removed from our affairs.”  But note that he says this at a time when blood sacrifice to propitiate those very gods was the order of the day and readily accepted by all.  Instead, his advice to us is that we withdraw our consciousness from the cares and worries of the world, and apply ourselves to “the truth of reasoned theory;” and all this, rather than being “(c)rushed to the dust under the burden of Religion.”  When I, therefore, wish to remember the paramount good in the life of the mind, I read Titus Lucretius Carus, born somewhere between 99 and 95 BCE and died in 55 BCE, and I revel in the simple joys of life, and in the ultimate indestructibility of the tiniest building blocks of nature.

*BCE – Before the Common Era, a phrase often used by anthropologists and other scholars (along with its counterpart CE, meaning in the Common Era), in place of the older, religiously based BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini).

  • A SHORT HISTORY OF IRELAND, John O’Beirne Ranelagh – I can’t help it.  My Irish roots continually show through, whether I like it or not.   And though I may come from a shanty Irish background, yet I can still aspire to learning (whether I ever reach that lofty goal or not), and (dare I say it?) even to sagacity.  Why not, after all, set one’s heart on the highest good, as many times as we may fall and fail in its attainment?   And falling and failing is what happened in Ireland for many centuries.  This book takes the long view, beginning in the seventh millennium BCE with the coming of the Gaels to the island, and goes through the introduction of Christianity in the fifth century CE, to the Viking raids that started at the end of the eight century, the onslaught of the English, with Srongbow’s invasion in 1169, the Great Famine of 1845-1852, when over a million died and another million emigrated, and finally into the modern era.  Indeed, it must be said that much of the second half of the book concentrates on events that began with the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence (1919-21) and the later creation of the Irish Free State (the best deal they could get from the UK at the time, it would appear), going on to the Irish Civil War (1922-23), and finally into the more or less contemporary politics of both the South and the North.  It is not a happy history, as much as the story of few people on earth can, I suppose, be considered altogether happy.  But Ireland in particular seems to have suffered greatly, and for a very long time.  And no one can deny the arrogance, aggression, and downright cruelty of much of what the British have done in Ireland over the centuries, which greatly contributed to, and indeed, exacerbated, that unhappiness.  As a direct result of their so-called Plantation Policies, for example (begun in earnest in the 17th century under Cromwell), Protestant Scottish and English settlers eventually came to outnumber and lord it over native Irish in the North.  The result was that we have the terrible bigotry and inequities that beset Northern Ireland, and which to an extent still remain to this day. It is also true that in the end there have been unspeakable atrocities aplenty on both sides.  Still, it seems clear that none of this would have come about in the first place, had it not been for the direct interventionist policies of a greedy and overbearing England.  Let us hope that cooler heads will prevail, and that both Northern Ireland, now truly and probably forever a part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland will live to see better and happier days.
  • LES FLEURS DU MAL, Charles Baudelaire – Every so often, I seem to need my “fix” of French literature.  Who can deny that, along with Russian, English, Italian, Spanish, German, and now probably American literature, the writings of the French are among the jewels of world literature?  As a young student living in France, I was very taken by the great 19th century poets.  Rimbaud and especially Baudelaire were among my favorites.  And so, from time to time, I go back to my bookcase and dig out my old copy of “Les Fleurs du Mal,” the Flowers of Evil.  I suppose, if I’m being perfectly frank, these poems no longer speak to me in quite the same way they did over 45 years ago now, when I was a university student living in Strasbourg.  In some ways, in fact, reading them is almost a kind of exercise in nostalgia.  Still, I thrill to these enchanting lines, and remember the decadence and eroticism of Baudelaire’s poetry.  Let me quote just one stanza – in French, if you will indulge me, and for those who may speak the language – as well as with the addition of my own clunky enough translation of such glorious words (from a poem entitled “La Crépuscule du Soir” – “Evening’s Twilight”):

Voici le soir charmant, ami du criminel;

Il vient comme un complice, à pas de loup; le ciel

Se ferme lentement comme une grande alcôve,

Et l’homme impatient se change en bête fauve

(Here is charming evening, friend of the criminal;

It comes stealthily like an accomplice, on wolf’s steps; the sky

Closes slowly like a huge alcove,

And impatient man is changed into a wild beast)

That last line in particular, “l’homme impatient se change en bête fauve,” is quintessential Baudelaire.  Dark and brooding and verging on the demonic.  I loved it when I was 21 years old, and even today it can make me shiver a little, more in memory perhaps of who I once was, than of what it has to say to me today.  Still, isn’t that one of the things literature, and maybe poetry in particular, can do for us?  Take us back to who we were when we first read it, celebrate that person, and possibly even, to an extent at least, breathe a sigh of relief that we are no longer he.

  • THE GOLDEN ASS, Lucius Apuleius Africanus – It’s not that I’m enamored only of old Latin literature, but here is a novel (the only one to survive in its entirety from ancient Rome) that really should not be missed.  It is a silly, bawdy, picaresque story of a foolish young man who, because of his inexperience and naïveté, to say nothing of his over-inquisitiveness and complete lack of good sense, gets himself changed by magic into an ass.  As with all such works of this type, the overall plot is thin as a dime, but the situations and the characters are hilarious.  “The Golden Ass” (“Asinus Aureus,” in Latin) is the Perils-of-Pauline of idiocy and of humorous situations cum morality tales.  Apuleius apparently took at least some of his story from an earlier Greek version, now lost, but no doubt added his own commentary and hilarity, as well.  He was born in what is today known as Algeria, and lived from approximately 125 to 180 CE.  He had his own tragic-comic misfortunes in life, but today we are mostly glad of the harebrained story he left behind for our entertainment and enlightenment.   Let me quote just a single short passage (marvelously translated by Sarah Ruden, by the way), one of many that could be related, showing the wiles of a supposedly pious wife and the simplemindedness of her cuckold husband.  Here it is for your reading pleasure: “There wasn’t a single fault missing from that dame, who had nothing whatsoever to recommend her; on the contrary, every wicked passion, bar none, had flooded into a heart that was like some slimy privy.  A friend in a fight but not very bright, hot for a crotch, wine-botched, rather die than let a whim pass by – that was her.  She pillaged other people’s property without the slightest shame or restraint and threw money away on the lowest self-indulgence.  She was in a long-running feud with trust, and in the army storming chastity.”  Who would want to be married to such a wife?  On the other hand, we also wind up half pitying her for the gullible imbecile of a husband she’s married to.  Every low trick, every foible, every blemish, and half of the kinky idiosyncrasies humanity is capable of are represented in this rollicking and riotous read.  I therefore pick up Apuleius whenever I want to be reminded of what a foolish, crackpot, crazy, and hysterically funny world we live in.

So, that’s it.  These are some of the friends I have been spending my hours with of late.  Let me know who your friends are, and we can compare notes.  After all, that’s part of the great joy of reading, isn’t it?  Letting each other know what tickles your fancy, who makes you weep, who makes you laugh, who makes you wonder, and who, in the end – let us hope, at least – occasionally may even bring a bit of the light of wisdom into our lives.