Jun 6, 2011

Through a Glass Darkly: The Silence of God

The Harrowing Effects of Religious Hypocrisy:

I've just finished Ingmar Bergman's magnificent trilogy exploring the dimensions of faith, which is composed of three very beautiful, but rather austere films; Through A  Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence. Winter Light is the most religiously explicit of all of Bergman's films, focusing as it does on the religious crisis of a Lutheran pastor, who's soul has simply been emptied of all palpable sense of God's loving presence. I couldn't help thinking of the many crises facing the Christian churches in this day, the Catholic Church in particular, as Bergman's three profound films carried me into their interior, deeply spiritual worlds - with all of their bleakness, darkness, despair - and the faint glimmer of a redeeming light seen in the far distance on the horizon. Faith is a distant glow, burning gently and barely perceptibly, in the burned out hearts of Bergman's characters, and  they must discover and nurture this glow themselves -without the consolations of a hypocritical religious structure - through their small acts of love and sacrifice for one another. A terrible doubt always hovers over Bergman's films and the characters within - will they discover within themselves this delicate glow of faith and meaning, or will there only be ashes?

What intrigued me about this trilogy is the manner in which it illuminates Bergman's own crisis of faith, since he used these three films to work through many conflicts stemming from his own childhood religious upbringing and the abuse he suffered at the hands of his minister father. Bergman's father was a Lutheran pastor and later chaplain to the King of Sweden. Ingmar would listen enthralled to his father's glorious sermons on Christian love - then find himself subjected to the most painful torments from his towering minister father. If Bergman were discovered to have wet the bed - as a boy of five!- his father would beat him mercilessly, then  lock him into a dark closet for hours at a time, only to remove him and force him to wear a red dress for the remainder of the day. Such torments continued for years and instilled in the young Bergman a profound distrust of all official ministers of religion and a life long disgust with all forms of religious hypocrisy. Ministers were capable of composing the most glowing sermons on Christian love, but within whose hearts no such love had found room  to grow and flourish-deserts of the heart concealed behind honeyed words of hypocrisy. Does this not remind us so much of the sexual abuse crisis of the Catholic Church - particularly of the failure of a fairly representative number of Church leaders to display even the most rudimentary concern and practical support for victims of abuse? The great crisis of faith this scandal engenders in the minds and hearts of sincere spiritual searchers is this: If the spiritual power that is supposed to be operative within and accessible through this religious institution cannot even penetrate the hearts of its ministers and leaders, cannot find room to grow and flourish there to the extent that they place the well being of children above the reputation of the institution - and cannot inspire it's own leaders with the grace and insight to prevent such a tragedy on such a grand scale - then of what use is it? This is the terrible doubt, which pursued Bergman all his life and which he explores in so many films, a doubt instilled in his own soul by the abuse he suffered at the hands of a minister of the faith. Fortunately, spiritually discerning persons realize that the efficacy of the Spirit does not depend on the witness of fallible leaders (and that not all leaders, to be sure,  remain unresponsive to the movements of the Spirit), but transcends them and flourishes on the margins, in the shadows, among the outcasts and those frequently deemed the least worthy of grace. Nonetheless, in the face of such a powerful countersign being given collectively by the leadership of the Catholic Church, the doubt still remains. This is why it is imperative for discerning Christians to offer their own countersigns to the negative sign of sinful, abusive leadership - and to offer havens of peace and serenity in the midst of trials and contradictions, witnessing to the delicate but ecstatic joy of the living flame of Love which burns brightly in hearts that have been opened through grace and the purging of the grasping ego.

This brings me to the moving climax of Bergman's film, Winter Light. Bergman has inserted into this film about profound religious doubt, one deeply spiritual man of faith, the crippled, hunchback sacristan who shares these remarks about his reading of the gospels with the exhausted pastor. In light of the failure of leadership within the Church today, they speak for themselves, words from a marginalized cripple, who is a humble servant to the despairing minister of religion, but who witnesses far more effectively to the spiritual efficacy of his religion than the minister himself. Such is the mystery of grace:

Now I’ve gotten as far as the story of Christ’s passion, and it’s given me pause. The passion of Christ, his suffering, wouldn’t you say the focus on his suffering is all wrong? This emphasis on physical pain. It couldn’t have been all that bad.  It may sound presumptuous of me, but in my humble way I’ve suffered as much physical pain as Jesus.  And his torments were rather brief. Lasting some four hours, I gather? 

I feel he was tormented far worse on another level.  Maybe I’ve got it all wrong.  But just think of Gethsemane, Pastor. Christ’s disciples fell asleep. They hadn’t understood the meaning of the last supper or anything. And when the servants of the law appeared, they ran away, and Peter denied him. Christ has known his disciples for three years.  They’d lived together day in and day out, but they never grasped what he meant. They abandoned him, down to the last man.  He was left all alone. That must have been painful. To realize that no one understands. To be abandoned when you need someone to rely on. That must be excruciatingly painful. But the worst was yet to come. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, and hung there in torment, he cried out, 

"God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

He cried out as loud as he could. He thought that his heavenly father had abandoned him. He believed everything he’d ever preached was a lie. In the moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship. God’s silence.

And yet...and it is a significant qualification ...a powerful spiritual beauty lies within the profound silence of all of Bergman's films, reminiscent of the silence of the Irish playwright, Samuel Becket - the silence of waiting upon God. Characters suffer in all of Bergman's films, they are bereft of normal human hope, they search within the desert of the heart for some spring of living water which does not seem to gush forth, and so they remain in silence, waiting. God may be silent, but his presence is revealed in the deepest inner core of the heart, a silence that is a deep inner stillness and which prompted the Catholic contemplative, Bernadette Roberts to exclaim that the most perfect name for God was Silence.


colkoch said...

Wow, I had forgotten the power in Bergman's films. I have to admit when I saw them in college I don't think I had experienced enough of life to really appreciate them. They came back crystal clear for me reading this post. Now I really resonate with the musings of the hunchback.

Betrayal, and the doubt it causes, just kill human hope and with that hope goes the human spirit. I have thought for a long long time the agony in the garden was the real message of Passover. We all experience our most powerless times when we know we are alone and betrayed. And then we extrapolate that experience to everybody and that includes God. Jesus was truly human-in all ways.

Jayden Cameron said...

I'm with you there. Colleen. I made my obligatory trips to the cinema during college to see Bergman's Seventh Seal, Virgin Spring, Wild Strawberries, all of which more or less went over my head - though I did love the all night wine parties that followed! Through a Glass Darkly - the only thing that stuck with me was the 'rape' scene, sister raping brother, which so shocked me, but now viewing it again 50 years later, seems so discretely and sensitively done. Bergman simply looks more truthfully and more uncompromisingly into the human heart than any other cinematic master in film history. The impact of religion upon him was enormous, and the tortured Christ figure on the cross appears in many of his films (the same figure!).

JD said...

Thanks Jayden. Bergman is one of the most affecting directors for me to date. I recently watched the full five hour cut of his "Fanny Och Alexander".

Bergman, though always tasteful and sensitive as you said, shies away from little. The films of his that I have seen so far really do strive to embrace the whole of life. If there is laughter, joy, tenderness, human warmth... you can be sure their inverse will also be explored in equal length: cruelty, coldness, helplessness, near despair...

One does not watch him to "get away" I think, or as an opiate for sorrows. Always a kind of "light and shadows" approach, I think.

Additionally, he is intensely textual in addition to his obviously visual perceptiveness. He can, and often does, give his characters simply spoken, yet lengthy and deeply (often existential) speeches. Whether these are about the nature of human relationships and the incoherency and mystery of the human heart and its desires, or an attempt to once more frame the human subject before the terror/ joy/ enigma of an unexplained and unexplainable world, I always come away feeling as though I've had something like literary experience as well.

I've not seen the films you talked about here. But I have a feeling I'll be getting to them soon enough...

Jayden Cameron said...

Very well put, JD, Bergman flinches at nothing in the human condition and has the most uncompromising, unswerving vision of any film director I know. He simply looks the deepest into the human heart and what he discovers there is not always pleasant, but it is also the source and the evidence for him of redemption. You're right about the literary aspect. I hadn't thought of that, because we are so taken by Sven Nykvist's cinematography and use of light and shadows. But the characters really are given magnificent, very expressive lines. I'm presently going through the whole collection, and Fanny and Alexander is next, but I don't have the original five hour version. Must try and look that up.

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