Fr. Jake Martin, SJ, looks at the Academy Award nominees and this year’s best films and performances through a spiritual lens — and makes a prediction or two along the way.
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Discerning Spirits at the Multiplex
My hands coated in synthetic butter, Diet Coke gurgling up through my straw, I thought, “Lord I believe that I am in your presence and you are loving me.” This is the standard opening of St. Ignatius’ prayer of examen and a line I say regularly, if not rotely. I didn’t expect it to pop into my head an hour into watching Hugo at the local multiplex.
When I decided to enter the Society of Jesus and began to tell friends and family, once the usual pleasantries were exchanged, the interrogation began. Invariably the conversation would turn toward the Spiritual Exercises, that is, the 30 day silent retreat that every first year Jesuit novice is expected to do.
“You mean you can’t talk at all?
“What do you do all day?”
“Don’t you think you’ll go crazy?”
My answer to the last question was invariably, a big, firm, “Probably.”
But I survived the Spiritual Exercises unscathed. Actually, I wound up learning a thing or two along the way, one of the most significant being the rules of discernment, Ignatius style. There are 22 in all, rules that is, and I’m not about to list them here, however I will say that they’ve completely altered how I view the world around me, perhaps nowhere more significantly than in how I watch movies.
Sitting in the multiplex covered in popcorn grease watching Hugo — the fantasy story of a young orphan’s adventures while living in a French train station — I was overcome with joy, not only at the beauty and remarkable craftsmanship of the film, but also at the love that those who made it so clearly had for the story they were telling. Martin Scorsese has made his name creating gritty, urban films with dark, oftentimes nihilistic, themes. And yet, never have I felt his love for the craft shine through more than in Hugo.
One of the key components of Ignatian discernment is discerning spirits through measuring your affective response to an event after it has occurred. While we may feel consolation — feelings of happiness, calm, peace and joy — in the midst of something, St. Ignatius warned this could be the evil spirit in disguise and that it is best to go back and reflect on those feelings afterwards. Upon reflection, if you wind up feeling desolation — despair or anxiety — that means that the initial movement was not coming from God.
Hours after watching Hugo, my hands clean, as I prepared for the end of my day, I couldn’t help but reflect back on my experience in the theater. The same feelings of peaceful joy, though in a more muted form, returned.
Hugo isn’t alone among this year’s Best Picture nominees in leaving me with strong feelings of consolation; The Artist, The Help and The Descendants also transcended the traditional pedestrian moviegoing experience. Each acted as a prayer of sorts; in each I found myself having moments of awareness of my God and Creator, as well as feelings of hopefulness and joy.
These films offer life-affirming, life-giving and life-altering messages, which mean far more to our broken world than a golden statue of a little man on Oscar night. They demonstrate that prayer isn’t just something to be done inside of a church — that if we are open to God being present anywhere and everywhere in our lives, conversion can occur… with a bucket of popcorn.