I don’t consider films – even the few not merely silly or decadent – major cultural events, and have always been puzzled by people who do. Movies play a prominent role in our ever-churning, media-driven culture. But it’s the rapid change itself that’s significant, much more than any particular element within it.
Whenever you see some recent release described as “A brilliant, beautiful masterpiece” (Black Swan), or “Changes everything” (Avatar), or “Redefines a genre” (Pulp Fiction), you can be sure that the cultural “sell-by date” is short indeed.
A Casablanca or The Godfather (Part I) or Lord of the Rings, even religious films like Jesus of Nazareth and The Passion of the Christ, can lay down a long-term marker. But such rare works struggle against the seemingly limitless appetite for diversion (in Pascal’s sense of soul-killing divertissement) that engulfs us all.
Despite all of which, I found myself intrigued by The Way, the new film starring Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez, who wrote and directed the film, a modest but genuine story about the walking pilgrimage from France to the shrine of St. James of Compostela in Spain.
Personally, I am a relentless walker, through everything from city centers to – when I can get there – forests and mountain. Decades ago, I began to be gripped by a need to walk through places – not ride – the way that human beings have for ages.
Long walks undertaken for spiritual purposes put body and soul, together, on a true journey. Charles Péguy, the brilliant French writer (and great walker), single-handedly founded the walking pilgrimage between Notre Dame de Paris and Chartres. As he put it, “the whole problem of the soul opens up before you on the road.”
The Way does not attempt anything so grandiose, and that is one of its strengths. Four people make the month-long pilgrimage to Compostela. Martin Sheen sets out because his son died in an accident on pilgrimage. A Canadian woman claims she’s trying to quit smoking, but we learn she had an abortion and hears the dead child’s voice. A jovial Dutchman says he’s trying to lose weight before a wedding, and an Irishman has writer’s block. In short, a collection of typical modern maladies – concealing spiritual problems.
There are two main types of Christian pilgrimages. One is the Itinerarium mentis in Deum, the soul’s journey into God, involving calibrated stages and the ultimate destination. The other is like The Canterbury Tales, a motley company of pilgrims whose stories mirror human messiness and only achieve partial or indirect resolution.
The Way is definitely in the second category and has drawn some criticism because none of the characters undergoes a spectacular transformation. But I think this criticism is misdirected, and not only for The Way. It’s very difficult to portray holiness at any time. The considerable distance between our popular culture and the very notion of holiness makes it even more so.
And is that really what we want from most cultural artifacts anyway? It’s only during the high holy days of mind and spirit that we can really absorb transcendent stories like The Divine Comedy. Most of the time, as Cardinal Newman took pains to explain, we are dealing with artworks by sinful men about sinful men.
And that is a good thing. Why? The reasons are many and complex, but they come down to basically three.
First, few people can do complex philosophy or theology, as Aquinas notes in several places. We can wish it otherwise, but it’s the human situation. The Bible itself is mostly a collection of stories about imperfect people. God Himself seems to think that best conveys the truths needed for salvation.
Second, while lives of the saints and other edifying works are useful and even necessary, they’re usually dreadfully written, hard to read, and only helpful for people who are already well along the road.
And finally, when people’s imaginations have been stunted and their intellects limited by the thought that blocks thought about ultimate questions, it’s only by subtle and indirect routes that we reach the heart.
By taking that path, The Way is quite effective. All the characters change palpably, though in the end they’re still on the way. In a nice touch, a priest on pilgrimage gives Sheen a rosary. He protests that he’s not very religious, but days later, meeting the priest again, he whispers that, several times, it came in handy. “It usually does,” the priest laughs. A spiritual tactfulness marks the story.
There’s one sour note. The conclusion comes, not at Compostela, moving as that scene is, but on the Atlantic coast at Finisterre, a day’s further walk. A gypsy the pilgrims had met (implausibly inflated by political correctness into a voice of ancient wisdom) advises Sheen to scatter his son’s ashes in the ocean: “It has nothing to do with religion.”
But anyone who believes in a Creator (Sheen and the gypsy do) knows there is nothing untouched by God. This unfortunate postscript, I fear, is a bow to the modern cultural assumption that a pilgrimage is a nice spiritual experience, but that in the end we come down to reality: father, son, and the random forces of nature.
Still, we could use more such films. We aren’t likely to have a culture hospitable to religion anytime soon. For that, we’d need many more people whose souls are open and who simultaneously know how to let the swift cultural flow pass by without disturbing the permanent things. And who still recognize that they are on the way. In short, we need a new cultural spirituality. And we won’t get it by argument alone.
Cardinal Newman had written on his tomb: Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem. It’s usually translated “Out of shadows and images into truth,” as if we get to truth by leaving the images of things. But it just may be that, in our circumstances, we will find truth only after we have better images in mind.