Into the Wild

I am still being overtaken by thoughts from watching Into the Wild earlier this week. The film tells the true story of Chris McCandless who gives his $20k savings to Oxfam, then leaves home and drifts around America’s wild places with the ultimate plan of getting himself to the wilds of Alaska. He finds his way to the wilderness of Alaska eventually and walks off the end of the tarmac into the unknown. There, utterly alone, he survives for some months, living in an abandoned bus.

Beautifully shot by director Sean Penn, the film is a compassionately told story of a damaged young man trying to find meaning and find himself in contemporary America. But it is also a study of the yearning in us all for the wild and lonely places that are fast disappearing from our overdeveloped landscapes.

We cannot help but admire McCandless’ brazen opposition to the assumptions of job, car, house, career etc that seem inevitable to him as he emerges from college. His story seems to provide encouragement to the hunger is all of us to get off this mad treadmill of wages and mortgage and busyness and live something of a simpler life, closer to nature, closer to ourselves.

There is something of a movement of literature on this subject too. The new naturalist writings of Robert MacFarlane, Roger Deakin et al are gaining popularity, reconnecting us to old ways, ancient rural practices and landscapes that are fast disappearing. These writings, of which I am something of a fan too, connect deeply with me in my search for space, silence, stillness and beauty in the midst of 21st century life.

We seem to be living in a paradox, yearning for wilderness, nostalgic for a simpler life that has all but disappeared and yet, by and large, unable to break off from our crowded, materialistic, urban-dominated civilisation. MacFarlane’s own journey offers help though. After a series of journeys to some of the remotest places in the UK his journeys begin to explore a wilderness that is more about noticing and awareness than about purely geography. He explores the holloways of Dorset, hidden worlds that are lost to us unless we attend to them and begins to reflect on a perhaps more powerful wilderness that lies at the edges or even in the midst of our busy world. He quotes Deakin who said: ‘There is wildness everywhere, if we only stop in our tracks to look around us.’

The search for the wild is symptomatic of a deeper search, for meaning, for purpose, for ourselves and for who we are in the context of the universe. And to find it, we don’t have to break off from our lives and spend months in the wilderness – but we do have to do that on a small scale. We have to stop and we have to find something of that wilderness space wherever we are.  Sadly that does take determination and something of the countercultural courage displayed by McCandless. Perhaps that is the thing that most drew me, and others to him. He had in spades the kind of single-mindedness we all need to resist the pernicious allure of modern life with all its false promises of happiness and satisfaction.

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Calvary – some reflections

John Michael McDonagh’s follow up to The Guard is a more sombre and profound reflection on life, faith and forgiveness in an Ireland steeped in a traditional religion that has been utterly discredited by the child abuse scandals. We watch as Brendan Glesson’s beautifully portrayed parish priest, Father James, works a week in his parish, a week framed by a threat on his life and the Sunday on which that threat may be fulfilled. As he interacts with a host of broken and bereaved characters we see a good man and a good priest burdened by the legacy of his institution, struggling to get beneath the layers of hypocrisy and disingenuity prevalent in both the church he represents and lives of those he ministers to.

Integrity forms a major theme of the film. Father James is portrayed essentially as a man of integrity in a world of huge hypocrisy. His call to the priesthood has been born out of suffering and bereavement. He is an older priest with little apparent ambition except to faithfully do the work of a priest in a rural backwater of Ireland. His character is deliberately contrasted with that of this colleague who suitability to the role of priest is questionable and of his local Bishop who we see feasting in the palatial rooms of his palace and pontificating blandly with Father James as they walk through his extensive gardens. When Father James’ colleagues ups and leaves one morning Father James says to him: ‘I never hated you, it’s just you’ve got absolutely no integrity.’

Integrity, from the same root as integer, means whole. Contrast with disintegration, the state where things fall apart. The films cultural and social world seems to have disintegrated, as have the lives of those individuals within it whose search for wholeness, for integration has sent them up the blind alleys of money, sex, drugs and crime.  The past is a major player in that disintegration and in particular the past failings of the church. The church’s role as an integrator, of society and people, is therefore utterly moribund, it can no longer fulfil its calling as an institution, so discredited it is in the experience of so many people.  Through this world Father James stumbles and struggles, faithfully working out his vocation whilst the burdens of the institution threaten to bring him down.

So how can we be a person of integrity? How can we be whole? If our institutions fail us and seem capable of a collusion of hyprocisy and disingenuity what recourse do we have to find wholeness and integration in our lives? Weaving in and out of this mess is the theme of forgiveness. The film starts in a confession box, a place of repentance and forgiveness. This space of absolution and forgiveness is instead replaced with the threat of revenge and violence.  Having made this fundamental contradiction however the film then explores how each character seeks reconciliation and forgiveness of some kind; forgiving the sins of others, forgiving themselves, forgiving God. Central to this then is the journey of reconciliation that Father James makes with his own daughter. Their dance toward forgiveness is counterpoint to Father James’ failure to enable reconciliation for the other broken and stubborn characters in the film. And the denouement is its itself counterpoint to the offer of forgiveness – at the end of the day there is stark choice in denuded surroundings – do we take the long hard road of forgiving and being forgiven, or do we go for cheap revenge?

The final scene see Father James’ daughter visiting his killer in hospital. Tearfully she lifts the receiver to speak to her Father’s murderer. We do not know what she will say but every ounce of expression in her face speaks of compassion and forgiveness. She has received forgiveness, now she offers it. Forgiveness cannot be simply institutionalised, and when it is, and when the institution that offers it is discredited, where are we to turn?  We cannot delegate forgiveness or industrialise it. Forgiveness is at the heart of our striving to be fully human, fully whole, integrated people. It is hard work, challenging, demanding – but essential to the relationships that make life what it is, with one another, with ourselves and with God.