Praying With Terrence Malick
So, I went to see the rheumatologist about my chronic mono. Tests were ordered, but his considered opinion is that my immune system has broken down because of persistent and serious stress. He will see me in three weeks to go over the test results, but predicts that the answer for me will be “trying to find inner peace.”
He said that, this physician, talking like a priest. He told me he sees this a lot in his practice these days: people’s immune systems being unable to cope with multiple stressors. Who knew?
As it happened, my actual priest had only the other day assigned me a prayer rule, which is to say a daily discipline of specific prayers. This particular discipline — the one he gave me, I mean — is focused around the Jesus Prayer, which is common in Orthodox Christianity. It is a contemplative form of prayer, in which one creates inner stillness. The way I was taught how to pray it when I first came into Orthodoxy involves steady breathing, like a tide going in and out, with each phrase. Much later, I learned that the breathing is not recommended for beginners, but this had already become my way of saying the Jesus Prayer, so I remained with it.
There have been times in my life when I’ve been more faithful to it, and have observed a greater inner peace grow in my heart. But it doesn’t last, because I am inconstant.
I started the new prayer discipline a couple of days ago. This morning, I woke up very early to say my prayers, and I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about the Terrence Malick film To The Wonder, specifically the role the Abbey of Mont-St-Michel plays in the film. The Abbey, you will not be startled to learn, symbolizes God, in his fixity. Above is a short clip from the movie’s beginning. What you don’t see is the couple standing in the tidal mudflat of the bay between the island and the shore, the water rushing in around them. It’s a marvelous image. This morning in prayer, I kept imagining the tide rushing in and rushing out around the Abbey, with my breathing. When you pray the Jesus Prayer, you are supposed to keep your mind clear, but the image of the Abbey and the tides wouldn’t leave mine.
I mention this because nothing like this has happened to me before: cinematic art as an aid to prayer and contemplation. To The Wonder is a difficult film, and very much not to everyone’s taste. It is a profoundly religious movie, but hard to penetrate. As I watched the film, I couldn’t wait for it to end, but it has remained with me in a deep way, as I discovered this morning praying in the darkness and silence.
Here, by the way, is another short scene, following the couple’s visit to the Abbey. It takes place in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. It’s hard for me to watch this without getting emotional; it was one year ago that we were living for the month only one block from this magical place. In the film, both the Abbey and the Luxembourg stand for enclosures, enchanted gardens in which a sense of wonder overtakes the couple, like light framed by a window. Malick seems to suggest that inner light can come to us even in darkness. When the couple goes to America, and they are bounded by nothing except their own wills, they lose each other, and with that goes the chance that the grace and wonder that they knew may visit them again. Because they are inconstant. What they need to hear, but do not, is the monologue spoken by Javier Bardem, who plays a lonely Catholic priest having a crisis of faith. It is the emotional and theological heart of the film.
The paradox is that one must be limited in some way — by fidelity to place, to practice, to promises — to have access to the Eternal, the Sublime, to Love. The motion of the Divine comes and goes like the tide, but if we have faith, and commit ourselves to holding on to the wonder even when we cannot feel it, we can maintain a relationship to its unchanging reality.
Round the prayer rope I go, circling the Wonder, trying to spiral my way down to the still center, the heart of Creation…