If you’re going to see one movie this weekend… it will probably be Guardians of the Galaxy. So go see two movies and make one of them Calvary. It is an incredible work of art that does a number of things we haven’t seen on screen in a long time, chief among them showing us a good clergyman while also showing us the ugly truth about the church. John McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson (and the rest of the excellent cast) have given us a real gem of a film here. One to revisit and ponder for years.
Calvary begins with Father James (Gleeson) taking confession from a member of his parish. The man explains that he was severely abused for years as a child by a priest and he has decided to kill Father James, giving him one week. The rest of the film follows Father James as he carries out his priestly duties and tries to decide how to respond to this threat. Will he have the courage to face his own personal Calvary?
I’m now going to move into more philosophical and also spoiler-y territory so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you’ve been forewarned.
This film is fertile soil. Like good soil it has a lot of different shit in it. Whole articles will be written about what it says about suicide, domestic violence, adultery, sexual abuse, militarism, the financial industry, alcoholism, and euthanasia. There is an ongoing argument between Father James and an atheist doctor. Depending on how you look at it, the atheist wins, and also really loses. It includes a cannibalistic serial killer who is perhaps more sympathetic than the sycophantic younger priest who works with Father James. This movie has layers.
The piece I want to tease out has to do with disassociation.
Very near the end of the film Michael Fitzgerald, the investment tycoon who Father James has counseled a couple times during the movie, admits that he doesn’t feel anything. He didn’t feel anything for his wife or children, and he didn’t feel anything when they left him. He doesn’t feel guilty about any of the crimes he committed in the financial industry. He feels detached from everything.
That detachment, that disassociation is perhaps McDonagh’s idea of original sin. The disassociated banker has no qualms about robbing people. The disassociated husband doesn’t mind if his wife sleeps around on him, while she engages in the flagrant adultery, perhaps, as a desperate effort to feel something. The atheist doctor is trying and failing to disassociate as a way to protect himself from the pain of his patients. The younger priest is disassociated from his job. He’s just playing a role. He wears his vocation like a costume. Father James says of him “you have no integrity and that’s the worst thing I could say about anyone.”
In contrast to all these people Father James is connected. He cares about each of them and addresses their core humanity directly even when most of us would flinch away. He visits the cannibalistic serial killer in prison, for example, and replies with authenticity to the ugliness he sees there. The serial killer, it is worth noting, is a psychopath the quintessential symptom of which disease is a lack of empathy: disassociation. Father James calls him on this specifically. He sees that the killer is only pretending to feel guilt. Later, Father James brings a handgun to the old man asking for help with a dignified death – a response which shows he is sensitive and responsive, not just following a script. He considers the fleshy reality of each person in front of him and responds.
That atheist doctor tells a story about a boy who in a terrible accident is rendered deaf, dumb, blind, and paralyzed, but conscious. The boy is completely cutoff, utterly disassociated, an icon of hell. Appropriately this story elicits a furious response from Father James who is the one who is alive and who allows himself to be affected by the people around him. Perhaps this story is the reason why the doctor has chosen disassociation, to protect himself from that unfathomable level of agony. Father James’ fury catches the doctor by surprise. It’s an alternative he hadn’t considered: raging against the darkness instead of closing oneself off against it.
But Father James is no sinless saint. At the climax of the film he is talking with the man who has promised to kill him and the man asks him whether he wept when his dog was killed. Father James admits that he did. The man then asks if Father James wept when he learned about all the sexual abuse the church had covered up in recent decades. Father James admits, with dawning recognition, that he did not, that he felt detached, disassociated from the victims. We realize that he too, like all of us, is complicit in the darkness in this world by allowing ourselves to become detached. We read about the terrible things done by the church, or the horrors going on in Gaza or Syria right now, for example, and they hardly seem real.
This is why the killer’s statement of purpose at the beginning makes total sense. He needs to kill a good priest, not a pedophile, not one who bears direct guilt for the crimes of abuse, because if he killed a bad priest everyone would recognize it as simple cause and effect. It is not until the good priest understands his own suffering, his own death, is intimately bound up with the suffering of the victims that he feels disassociated from that redemption is even possible. Until the agony of the foreigner, the leper, the widow, the orphan, the outcast, the person unto whom I have no natural connection whatsoever is my own agony, then salvation eludes us.
Father James could have gone to the police. He could have fled. He could have gathered witnesses to protect himself. With any of these actions he would have asserted his innocence, an innocence which his killer acknowledged and yet, which they both knew to be a symptom of the deeper illness trapping them both. So long as we assert our innocence we disassociate ourselves from the victims, and the perpetrators at once. We neither weep in solidarity, nor weep in penitence. Father James sets aside his innocence in order to bridge the gap between himself and the ones who were sexually abused by men in his profession. He becomes sin. He allows the agony of the victim to be poured out upon him, not because he deserves it, but because to refuse it would be to disassociate, to keep himself cut off.
Thus we may say, from one perspective, that the answer to the old theological question is yes, Jesus absolutely had to die. God absolutely had to die. Until our misery became God’s misery, God was alienated from us. Until our stertorous final breaths became God’s final breath, God was detached from us. Until our oblivion became God’s oblivion, God was disassociated from us.
Was. God went to Calvary so that alienation, and detachment, and disassociation between God and humanity would die. We must now ask whether we have the courage to face our own Calvary so that we might no longer be disassociated from our fellow human beings.