Sunday, September 23, 2012

As If

What better subject for a Sunday than faith? 

Forty years ago I saw a remarkable film called Catholics (1973) that addressed a quite timely problem for devout, church-going Catholics - the transition from the Latin mass to the mass in English, and every other language under the sun. It was an historic move for the church, tha had resisted surrendering the sole authority of its priests in the reading and interpretation of the Bible. Of course, thanks to the Protestants, there had always been translations of the Bible available, some of them in language so beautiful that their sensual glory quite eclipses their spiritual message.

In the film, directed by Jack Gold (The Naked Civil Servant (1975), Escape from Sobibor (1987)) and written by Brian Moore (1), Martin Sheen played a representative of the Vatican who is sent to a remote island off the coast of Ireland where a group of monks have defied the pope by refusing to give up the Latin mass. The Abbot, played beautifully by Trevor Howard, meets with Sheen and tells him, in a private moment, that he cannot pray, and that he has been unable to pray for many years - since a traumatic visit to Lourdes. Since then, he tries to pray, he goes through all of the motions of praying, but as his words fly up to heaven, he finds his thoughts stuck here below.

The other monks are belligerent, terrified of abandoning what for them has been their spiritual sustenance - the Latin mass. But the abbot assures Sheen that they will obey the Vatican's order. As Sheen's helicopter lifts off, there is an extraordinary shot of a part of Howard's robe, a long scarf, momentarily caught in the draft of the helicopter's blades, suspended and moving in the air as if it were alive.

The abbot then takes the weeping monks into the church to pray, and the film closes on a freeze-frame of the abbot's face, gazing beseechingly upward as he and the other monks say the Lord's Prayer.

I was reminded of this film, which was re-titled The Conflict for home video (so as not to upset some Catholics, I suppose), when I read about Mother Teresa's published letters, Come Be My Light, in which she admits to the same despair as the abbot in the film - her inability to pray, to feel the presence of God, for nearly fifty years. Of course, Mother Teresa's reaction to this crisis of faith was to throw herself into her work for the church, which consisted mostly of the construction of convents in Bengal and campaigning against birth control.

In his first book, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer wrote "Belief passes, but to never have believed never passes." I was never a believer in God. But like everyone else, I did what I was told when I was a child. I hadn't the vaguest idea who or what God was, but I went through all the motions of praying, trusting in the instruction that "Act as if ye had faith, and faith will be given to you."(2) I acted "as if" until my late teens, to no avail. So I stopped. Since then, nothing has happened to me to persuade me to try again. But I wonder how many people simply go on acting as if all their lives, without ever having faith given them?

(1) Brian Moore (1921-1999) was a marvelous novelist who wrote the books and screenplays for Catholics, as well as The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964) and the magnificent Black Robe (1991).
(2) This instruction is nowhere to be found in the Bible.

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